Yucca Paintbrush


The Yucca Genus only grows naturally in the new world and therefore would not have been used in European prehistory, but it was used extensively by Native American Indians (such as Chumash and Miwok tribes). The Yucca consists of 49 species and 24 subspecies in North, Central and South America. Yucca leaves have strong fibers suitable for weaving and other uses and the stems of most species can be used for making soap.

Also known as soap plant, the Yucca contains an ingredient known as saponin. Saponins are molecules that act like a detergent and are composed of a steroid attached to a sugar molecule. Mixed with water, saponins create a foam and was used as a detergent and shampoo. The roots of the yucca contain the most saponin.

Yucca flowers and flower stalks are also edible - archaeological studies have revealed that the Yucca, which is the main ingredient of some Central American dishes, has been parts of crops in El Salvador and the Maya region for more than 1,400 years. Also ancient yucca leaves that resemble paint brushes have been found at archaeological sites in southern California. Spanish and Portuguese explorers probably brought Yucca plants back to Europe with them, but the plants became popular in Europe during the 19th century, when many types were imported by collectors.

Materials & Tools:

  • 3 - 5 dried Yucca leaves
  • Rounded stone
  • Craft knife or scissors
  • Allow about 30-60 minutes to complete

Preparation:

This simple project is to make a natural Yucca paint brush that can be used for any purpose. Little preparation is required, however it is always advisable to remove the very sharp point of the each Yucca leave before starting. For younger children, cutting and squaring the leaves (step 1 below) before they start would help.

Objective:

Carefully harvest the Yucca leaves using a knife or scissors to cut the stem just below the base of the leaf. Depending on the size of the leaf and the size of the paintbrush you want to make, you need one to 3-5 leaves per paint brush. Square-off the base (thickest part) and trim each leave to a length of about 20-30cm.

 

Lightly pound and grind the thickest part of the Yucca leaf with a rounded stone to loosen the fibers from the epidermis and flesh of the leaf. The longer you pound the leaf, the finer the bristles will be. For the best results, pound one leaf at a time.

Note: If you do not have a rounded stone, you can chew the leaves to break down and separate the fibers, like the Native American Indians

To remove the last of the epidermis and flesh from the fibres, carefully scrap away using a sharp stone or even fingernails.
Once the fibres have been fully exposed to about 4-5cm, they should be an off-white colour. You may need to trim the sides of the leaves to create move even shape before binding.
I used three leaves to create brush that is about 3cm x 1cm. The more leaves you bind together, the bigger the paintbrush will be
Bundle the leaves together bristle side up and hold the leaves in one hand, holding them by the base

Use the other hand to securely wrap a piece of binding material around the leaves. This material could be twine or string, however I used lengths of the Yucca leaves cut into long strips. Wrap the strip around the base of the leaves to hold them together. Tie the strips (twine or string) into a tight knot or fold into the top. Trim the edges of the bristles with scissors to create even bristle as required.

Tips:

  • As the point of the Yucca leaf is extremely sharp, it is advisable to where safety glasses when harvesting
  • Do not allow children to chew the leaves
  • As the leaves dry out, the Yucca leaf binding will shrink and may need to be rebound

Further Activity Examples:

  • Discussion on the activity:
    • Why do plants have leaves; what are the various parts of a leaf; why are leaves green?
    • Why does pounding the Yucca leaf produce long fibres?
    • How does the Yucca brush compare with a modern day brush ?
  • Painting using the Yucca brush
  • Art and painting materials through the ages
  • Wider discussions on:
    • Other uses for Yucca (e.g. string, needle & thread, basketry)
    • Where does the Yucca plant come from
    • Other uses of plants in everyday life
    • How modern paint brushes are made
    • Different types of paint

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