A prickly tale – plants doubling as burglar deterrents

It would have saved a lot of effort had one of us looked up Yucca whipplei before we planted it 20 years ago

It would have saved a lot of effort had one of us looked up Yucca whipplei before we planted it 20 years ago

“I hate prickly plants”. I have said that often and indeed have consigned various prickly specimens to the incinerator. But when I thought about it, I realised we have a fair swag of spiny and spiky plants that we wouldn’t be without.

Many of the bromeliads have spiny points down their leaves and I often have somewhat shredded arms from delving in their midst to pull out dead foliage and to remove spent pups. The broms can make a mess from wrist to elbow but these lacerations heal very quickly, unlike roses.

Roses harbour so many fungal and bacterial diseases that their thorns can cause wounds which often become infected at an alarming speed. A nurse once told me she spent some time “specialing” a patient with acute cellulitis as a result of a rose injury – a thorn in her elbow – and some older gardeners have told me they have pulled out their roses rather than risk health issues from the inevitable scratches and splinters. I get tempted, every time one rips me as I pass but what is a garden without roses?

What amused me was when I looked around our house and realised that we have several large, very spiky plants around windows. Burglar deterrents! Not that we planted them for that reason. Nor indeed have we ever been burgled. Maybe our plants are doing their job? Generally, such plants have ended up in those locations because they are desert plants which need hot, dry conditions and the house borders are one of the few places to offer these.

Aloe ferox - now a distinct hazard at the base of our fire escape

Aloe ferox – now a distinct hazard at the base of our fire escape

I doubt the wisdom of the rather large Aloe ferox with evil spikes at the base of our fire escape. Our only justification is that to get on to our fire escape, one needs the agility of an 11 year old and these days we would more than likely be found calling piteously for help from an upper storey window. The corollary is that at least burglars or intruders are unlikely to gain access up it.

Our biggest problem is the large yucca outside one window. We think it is Yucca whipplei. It was only a small, sculptural plant with attractive grey foliage when we planted it, maybe 30 cm high and 20 cm wide. That must be getting on for 20 years ago. At the point at which we decided we should be moving it, Mark thought it might be putting up a flower spike so wanted to leave it for another season. We are still expecting a spectacular flower spike at some point. Several years have passed and it still has not flowered. It is now well over two metres tall and a metre wide and that particular set of windows has not been cleaned in recent years. Nor can they be opened any longer. I gave the ultimatum last year that I wanted it moved.

Not for us, the quick and dirty solution of cutting it off and then digging out the roots. Oh no. This is a fine specimen and not particularly common, so it is waiting to be relocated. We have a sunny, north-facing bank where we have some of these larger desert style plants growing. It will take two men the better part of half a day. The problem is getting the two men on to the task at the same time. One man in my gardening life is more obliging than the other. That may be because he is paid, whereas I am married to the other one.

Last year, in preparation for the move, the concrete was cut. Oh yes, we have to remodel our paving to get this plant out. At the time of the concrete cutting exercise, our Lloyd commented to me that he was not going to be the one moving it because every leaf has a spiky tip. We are not talking seriously spiky like some yuccas of the major-risk-to-eyes or dangerously-hazardous-to-children variety. We had one of those and removed it from the rockery. This one is just a bit pointy on the tips, enough to cause discomfort rather than serious damage. “Easy,” said Mark. “We will just wrap the top in a blanket and tie the leaves upwards.”

Some yuccas can just be cut as lengths of stem and they will reshoot. This is how the very popular (and non-spiky) Yucca elephantipes used to brought in to this country and possibly still is. We are not willing to run the risk with this one which does not have much of a stem. We are trying to avoid butchering it. 20 years of growth deserves some respect.

Vertical cacti now guarding the laundry window (and the inimitable Zephyr once again getting himself into a photograph)

Vertical cacti now guarding the laundry window (and the inimitable Zephyr once again getting himself into a photograph)

If you like the idea of using plants to give some protection against intruders, it may be wise to keep to more vertical plants. Some of the desert cacti such as we have outside our laundry window are good – this one has been gently co-existing with the house for maybe 60 years.

I have a gardening friend, an older woman living alone, who told me that she has trained a very prickly rose along her narrow, secluded boundary where she feels most vulnerable. I prefer something a little less rampant than a climbing rose but there is no doubt, we could have saved ourselves a major task had one of us looked up Yucca whipplei before we planted it.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

If you are wondering how to set about moving large plants (similar to the Yucca whipplei mentioned above), there are step by step instructions in our Outdoor Classroom – Moving Large Plants.

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2 thoughts on “A prickly tale – plants doubling as burglar deterrents

  1. helenmirvine

    I have used three modern rugosa rose hybrid Robusta under two close fire escapes at a backpackers. I am more concerned about idiots trying to get access than what may happen to a guest if they landed in a rose.after a quick descent. Building has to come up to safety specifications and so far the inspectors have not worked out that these roses have vicious thorns. Round one to me.

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