On Yucca Moths and Four-Leaf Clovers

I spy . . .

This glorious spring one of our greatest pleasures in the dry, dusty, and oh-so-beautiful Colorado foothills has been an abundance of blooming yuccas. How can a spikey, rigid, oh-so-seemingly-sedentary plant seem so wild and alive?

It’s the flowers. Flowers made possible by the yucca moths. Writer Lucy Bell told me their story some years ago and I think of it every spring. This year I was lucky enough to  spy my first yucca moth! They are so tiny and the same creamy color as the blooms they live in. What a thrill to see such beauty up close.

It’s an even bigger thrill to share Lucy’s amazing story about them, below.

–Sandra Knauf

* * *

The creamy blossom beckoned to me that early Sunday morning and when I opened the petals, I saw her. My first yucca moth! Nestled near a pollen-heavy stamen, she shifted her position as the sun flooded her hideaway.

My job as a volunteer naturalist at Cheyenne Mountain State Park had immersed me in the amazing world of plants, but none fascinated me more than Yucca glauca, the native member of the agave family, whose stalks of white flowers, rising from a cluster of Spanish bayonet leaves, decorate the fields and hills of Colorado Springs from May to July.

The yucca and the yucca moth represent mutualism, the form of symbiosis in which each species benefits from the relationship. In fact, these two would die without each other.

The yucca moth flies at night, and the petals of the flower spread open in welcome. She collects pollen from the stamens, kneads it into a ball, tucks it under her chin and flies to another yucca plant, where she stuffs it into the pistil, the female part of the flower.

From each grain of pollen a microscopic tube carries the sperm cell down to fertilize the ovules. Before she leaves, she pierces the base of the pistil with her ovipositor and lays 3-5 eggs.

The seeds and the eggs of the yucca moth develop simultaneously. By the time the larva hatch from the eggs, the seeds have developed enough for the larva to eat them. Yucca moths are the only insects that can pollinate the yucca. Yucca seeds are the only food yucca larva can eat.

This story gave me goose bumps, and I wanted to see it for myself. I toyed with the idea of going out in the night with a flashlight, to search for the moths, but the closest field was far from my house and remote. I had no desire to meet up with nocturnal predators.

I learned after my discovery that Sunday morning that I didn’t need to brave the dark. The yucca flower is the moth’s daytime flat, where she rests in preparation for her nighttime activities. It was also her honeymoon suite, the site of her mating, and will serve as the nursery for the babies.

I took my camera with me on my next excursions and began to photograph my findings. Occasionally, the yucca moth would crawl onto my finger. A few times at the dog park while Mollie, my black Lab, patiently waited, I’d call people over to view the moth I’d found and give them an impromptu lecture on mutualism.

Yucca Mama and Friend

My enthusiasm soon had my park colleagues opening blossoms, but at our monthly volunteer meetings, they were disappointed and with a bit of resentment in their voices said, “I never find any moths.”

“I’ve never found even one.”

“Lucy, you’re just lucky.”

“We’re giving you a new name—Yucca Momma.”

Later that summer I was asked to do a presentation for our meeting. They titled it “Yucca Momma Tells All.”

Three years later, I’m still opening yucca blossoms and taking pictures of my little winged friends. I wonder why I am so lucky at this. Is it about intention? Is it about desire?

Several years ago, I was with a group of women at a retreat at Benet Pines Monastery in Black Forest, Colorado. We’d come inside from a walk and as we sat around the dining room table, Vera, one of the group, showed us a four-leaf clover she’d found while on the walk.

Everyone was amazed. Only one or two of the seven other women had ever found one, though all of us had looked at one time or another since our childhood.

“Really, you’ve never found one?” Vera asked. “Would you like to have one?”

“Oh, yes!” everyone answered, as Vera left the table and went out the door. In a few minutes she was back with seven four-leaf clovers that she passed out to each of us.

Some were smaller than others. Some had a less than perfect leaf edge, but they were indeed all clovers with four leaves.

“How did you do that?” we asked Vera.

She smiled and shrugged her shoulders. “I wanted to find them, and I did.”

Years later, my husband Ollie and I were on a road trip and stopped at Chincoteague, Virginia, to get an oil change for our Nissan Xterra. The service station provided a picnic table in a shady area for customers to wait.

Our conversation drifted from topic to topic and something reminded me of the time Vera found the four-leaf clovers. I told the story to Ollie, then looking down, I saw clovers growing in the grass beneath our feet. In just a few seconds, I found two four-leaf clovers. They were the first I’d ever found in my life, (and the last).

Mystics and scientists say that we are all part of the same energy. Maybe every now and then we get a hint of that truth. For an instant we are in cahoots with the universe.

The veil lifts and we are one with clovers and moths.

–Lucy Bell

Lucy Bell is a retired teacher and writing consultant. She is a certified Native Plant Master and Interpretive Guide at Cheyenne Mountain State Park. Her greatest loves are her kids–followed by Nature, Emerson and Thoreau, and writing.

3 Comments

Filed under Garden Writers We Love

3 responses to “On Yucca Moths and Four-Leaf Clovers

  1. What a stunning piece! Gorgeous photos and writing. Thank you!

  2. Charles Coon

    I have discovered all these things just in the past couple months, due to Lucy’s enthusiasm, who helped me gather some of this nature technology for a poem… Charlie Coon

  3. Chris

    “Mystics and scientists say we are all a part of the same energy”…what a profound bit of insight and summary of her observations. It made me pause and reflect. Thanks.

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