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Missouri Environment & Garden


David Trinklein
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 882-9631

Yews add beauty and durability to landscapes

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631

Published: June 12, 2020

red berries on bush

Yews, sometimes referred to by their plant genus Taxus, are considered by many to be one of the best groups of evergreen shrubs for landscape plantings. They are attacked by relatively few insect and disease pests, and provide attractive, deep green color throughout the year. Although their leaves resemble needles, they actually are narrow, linear-shaped and flat leaves that have a lustrous shine on their surface. Plants of yew are either male or female, with fleshy, red berry-like seed cones (arils) produced by the female.

Linked to antiquity, yews are associated with both folklore and legend. The Druids in pre-Christian times considered yew to be sacred, due in part to its longevity. There are specimens of yews in Europe still growing today estimated to be between 2000 to 3000 years old. Later in history, the English longbow was made from the wood of a species of yew native to the British Isles. History records this longbow was considered to be one of the finest weapons in Medieval Europe and gave the British a tactical advantage over the French in the 'Hundred Years War.' Additionally, in Shakespeare's Macbeth, "slips of yew, silvered in the moon's eclipse" were part of the ingredients bubbling in the witches' cauldron. The latter was for good reason.

All parts of a yew, especially its seeds, contain a rather toxic group of compounds classified as taxine alkaloids. One of these, the taxane group, is the most well-known natural chemotherapy drug in the United States and is derived from the bark of the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia). Because of the toxicity of yew seeds, people often prefer to use male plants in their landscapes. Although male plants do not produce seeds, their foliage contains taxines and should be avoided. To tell the difference between male and female plants, examine their flower buds. Male flowers are globose in shape and originate from the leaf axils in clusters along the undersides of branches. In contrast, female buds are smaller, stalked and pointed in shape.

bushy hedge

There are many yew cultivars which vary in size, form and growth rate. They all remain fairly dense and full as they age. If height control is desired, yews recover well from even a severe pruning. However, in most cases, they will look their best if planted where they have adequate space to mature without pruning.

Today, yews primarily are available as container-grown plants, although balled-and-burlapped stock occasionally can be found in commerce. As a result, they can be found for landscape planting over a long period of time. They are well-suited to our country's climatic conditions and are limited in use only by the severe cold of the far north and the oppressive heat of the deep south. Their only limitation in Missouri landscapes appears to be their inability to tolerate wet, poorly-drained soils.

There are more than a dozen species of yew, with most being native to other countries. The cultivars best-suited for landscape use are the result of a cross between English yew (Taxus baccata) and Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata). The resultant hybrid (Taxus x media) combines the ornamental quality of the English yew along with the hardiness of the Japanese yew. This interspecific cross was first grown in Massachusetts in the early 1900s by horticulturist T.D. Hatfield. Cultivars of it are commonly used today for foundation plantings, but are quite suitable for mass plantings, screens and hedges. Yews used for landscaping normally are propagated vegetatively (from cuttings) to retain genetic purity and varietal characteristics.

The following table summarizes the growth habit and traits of some of the more popular cultivars of Taxus x media, the Anglo-Japanese yew:

Cultivar Hgt. (ft.) Width (ft.) Comments
'Brownii' 6 to 8 6 to 9 Dense, rounded growth habit. Male clone available.
'Chadwickii' 3 to 4 3 to 4 Low, spreading growth habit. Responds well to pruning.
'Densiformis' 3 to 4 4 to 6 Dense, wide growth habit. Female only. Very popular.
'Everlow' 1.5 to 2 3 to 4 Low, spreading growth habit. Great for low hedges.
'Hicksii' 6 to 8 3 to 5 Tall, narrow, columnar growth habit. Widens with age.
'Tauntonii' 3 to 4 4 to 6 Spreading habit. Very resistant to winter desiccation.
'Viridis' 10 to 12 1 to 2 Extremely narrow, columnar habit. Medium green color.
'Wardii' 6 to 8 15 to 20 Very large shrub. Becomes flat-topped with age.

tall bushy tree

In addition, there are several cultivars of Taxus species that deserve consideration. 'Capitata' is a tall, upright form of Japanese yew that ultimately might achieve a height of 25 to 30 feet. It is widely planted as an upright type. 'Standishii' is an interesting female cultivar of English yew. Columnar in growth habit, it has colorful, yellow leaves that maintain their color well throughout the year. Finally, 'Fastigata' is an elegant, columnar cultivar of Irish yew with striking vertical interest. However, it is only reliably winter hardy through zone six.

As mentioned earlier, yews are relatively care free. They grow well in sun or shade and will withstand nearly any exposure. Yews need adequate moisture, but cannot tolerate standing water or locations that tend to remain wet for extended periods of time during rainy weather, such as areas near gutter downspouts. In exposed sites, winter desiccation can become a problem.

Because of the compact nature of their root system, yews are easy to establish, even when larger nursery stock is planted. They grow best in slightly acid soil, but have a fairly wide pH tolerance. While they can be pruned any time throughout the year, early spring pruning before new growth develops is preferred. Mid-summer pruning should be avoided, since the new growth produced does not have time to sufficiently harden and often is killed the following winter. The result is n a brown, unattractive appearance until new growth ensues in the spring. More extensive browning or yellowing of the foliage usually indicates root problems most often due to excessive amounts of water or poor soil conditions.

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REVISED: June 12, 2020