Yews (Taxus spp.) are an evergreen species that can grow to either shrub or tree-like proportions, depending on the variety. They are one of the slowest growing (and longest lived) ornamental plants, offering a very formal appearance to gardens with their uniform shape and deep green needles. The foliage, seeds, and bark of yews are extremely toxic, so these plants should not be planted where children or pets may be tempted to sample them.
Yews have a dense, shrubby appearance and a uniform growth habit with one-inch needles year round and attractive red berries in fall. Only female plants produce the berries, but only if they are pollinated by a male nearby. In the nursery, they are often labeled as to whether they are male or female, so check the label before making a purchase.
Some varieties are pyramidal, some are columnar, and some are low and spreading, but they all have the same growing requirements. They are hardy in USDA zones 4 to 7.
Yews grow in sun or shade though they will appear a bit sparse in full shade. Their primary requirement is well-drained soil -- if this is provided, yews tend to be robust, long-lived plants; if not, they will quickly decline and are likely to perish. Yews are quite cold hardy, but are difficult to grow in places with extremely hot summers.
Larger yew trees are excellent specimens to use as a focal point in the landscape while some of the smaller prostrate yews are suitable as a large scale groundcover.
The majority of yews, however, are used for hedges; there is a yew for almost any desired hedge height. They are often sheared into a formal shape and are one of the few evergreen needle-bearing plants that are suitable for hedges in shady conditions.
Growing Yew Trees
Yews are commonly available in nurseries in the regions where they are well-adapted. They are typically grown from nursery transplants.
Preparing the Soil
If the growing site does not already have excellent drainage it is important to plant yews on a mound at least six inches above the surrounding grade. They appreciate high quantities of organic matter in the soil, so mixing compost into the growing area helps to ensure a successful planting. Gently loosen the roots before planting and make sure the root crown is planted at or slightly above the soil line.
Care and Maintenance
Yews generally take on an attractive shape with no pruning, yet they respond well to pruning so it is often used to limit their size or to create a hedge with a particular shape. They have low to average water needs, but because of their sensitivity to poor drainage it's best to err on the side of under-watering a yew than to risk over-watering. Keeping a deep layer of mulch over the root zone is beneficial for cooling the soil and reducing water loss.
If yews are given the proper growing conditions, pests and disease are rarely a problem.
The following cultivars are a sampling of the wide variety of yews that are found in nurseries.
- 'Capitata' has a conical shape and grows to about 50 feet tall.
- 'Fastigiata' grows in an extremely narrow columnar shape to about 10 feet tall.
- 'Green Wave' is a spreading form that grows about four feet tall and eight feet wide.
A Plant for the Future
Planting a yew correctly is an endowment to future generations as they are capable of living for several thousand years! Such longevity adds a special dimension to the hobby of horticulture.