Till there was Yew: The Yew Tree
The yew (Taxus) genus represents many varieties of evergreen trees and shrubs that are easy to care for and can tolerate a wide range of growing conditions. These plants are highly adaptable for landscaping and make a nice addition to a garden border or when used in a mass planting. Yew, with its contrasting red berries, predates the tradition of the Christmas tree and is strongly associated with Christianity. That’s why you may find yew trees growing in many churchyards. For the holiday, sprigs are commonly cut and used like holly in natural Christmas decorations.
Yew is a conifer, producing cones instead of flowers, and it features evergreen needles that vary widely in size and shape. Yew bark, needles, and fruit are toxic to humans, dogs, cats, and pets. Even still, yew poisoning is a rare occurrence and does not deter most gardeners from using this very popular landscape feature.
Common Name: Yew bush, yew tree, yew shrub
Botanical Name: Taxus
Plant Type: Perennial
Mature Size: 4 to 60 feet tall, 4 to 20 feet wide, depending on the variety
Sun Exposure: Full, partial, shade
Soil Type: Loamy, moist, well-drained
Soil pH: Neutral (5.0 to 7.0)
Bloom Time: Nonflowering
Flower Color: Nonflowering
Hardiness Zones: Zones 2 to 10 (USDA)
Native Areas: Europe, Africa, Asia
Toxicity: Toxic to people and pets
In landscaping, yew often serves as a foundation plant placed in front of houses. It is also commonly used in hedges and topiaries. The varieties used for privacy hedges are typically much taller than they are wide, as you need the extra height for screening. By contrast, yews with a low profile are more suitable for use as foundation plants or short decorative hedges.
Excellent soil drainage is the key to successfully growing yew, as soggy conditions make this plant susceptible to fungal infections. But generally speaking, the plant is low-maintenance, only needing water occasionally and fertilizing and pruning annually.
Yew can be grown in full sun, partial shade, and even full shade. For healthy and lush growth, however, opt for a spot that gets several hours of sunshine each day. Too much shade can cause thin and floppy growth.
Yew tolerates several soil types, as long as the soil has good drainage. It thrives in rich, loamy soil with a neutral to slightly alkaline soil pH of 5.0 to 8.0. It also does well, surprisingly, in heavy clay. However, any planting site that traps water may result in root rot.
Yew prefers a moderate amount of soil moisture, yet it tolerates short periods of drought or overwatering, as long as the roots are not left standing in water. When establishing yew during the first year, water it weekly to maintain even soil moisture. After that, weekly watering are only needed during drought periods when natural rainfall will not provide enough moisture.
Temperature and Humidity
The hardiness zones for yew vary by species. In general, the plant does not tolerate prolonged extreme temperatures—hot or cold—and prefers to be planted in a site that’s sheltered from strong winter winds. Humidity typically isn’t a problem for yew, though it can struggle in extremely hot and humid summer weather.
Fertilize your yew in the early spring, beginning one year after planting. Enrich the soil by spreading a 1-inch layer of mulch or compost starting a foot away from the plant’s trunk and extending out to its drip line (where rain falls from the outermost branches). You can also use a granular, high-nitrogen fertilizer raked into the soil starting a foot away from the trunk and extending out to the drip line. Please refer to the product directions for the amount of fertilizer to use, noting that using slightly under the recommendation will prevent over-fertilization.
Types of Yew
There are over 400 cultivars of yew, many of which are derived from Taxus baccata (European yew) or Taxus cuspidata (Japanese yew). The types most popular for landscape use include:
Taxus baccata ‘Repandens’, which grows roughly 2 to 4 feet high by 12 to 15 feet wide and is used for foundation plantings or as short hedges.
Known as Canadian yew, Taxus canadensis has a spreading growth habit and reaches around 4 feet high by 7 feet wide.
Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’ is pillar-shaped and grows 15 to 30 feet high and 4 to 8 feet wide. It’s often used for privacy hedges.
The Taxus cuspidata ‘Monloo’ variety grows to a mature height of 3 feet and spreads 8 to 10 feet wide. This cultivar is commonly used for foundation plantings or short hedges.
Taxus × media ‘Hicksii’ is another variety used for privacy hedges. It is column-shaped and grows 15 feet high by 20 feet wide.
Overgrown yew can be rejuvenated with a good pruning, while shaping it to your preference. It’s not essential to prune yew annually, but it can be a helpful ritual, one that promotes lush growth. Prune yew in the early spring before any new foliage appears. Use hand pruners or branch loppers to cut branches back to their joints. Remove dead, damaged, or diseased branches as you spot them.
The best way to propagate yew is through cuttings. While this method takes time, it is still faster than propagating yew from seed (which can take several years to germinate). Propagating by cuttings also yields offspring that look exactly like the parent. So, if you’d like to extend a hedge or foundation cutting, this is the way to go.
Here’s how to propagate yew by cuttings:
Gather pruning scissors, rooting hormone powder, pots, sand, and potting soil.
Take 4- to 6-inch cuttings from your yew plant in the late summer or early fall. Make sure you’re cutting from the softwood portion of the bush. (Softwood is the stage between “new growth” and “hardwood,” when the plant’s stem is just beginning to toughen.) Choose strong, upright shoots.
Dip each cutting into rooting powder and place it into a pot filled with moist sand. Keep the sand wet until roots form. Relocate the pots to an area of bright light.
Once several weeks have passed, examine the bottom of the cuttings to see if they’ve formed roots.
Next, fill pots with potting soil, water them, and place the newly rooted cuttings into the soil, taking care to fully bury the roots. Let the baby plants grow in pots until they are big enough to be transplanted into the ground in the spring. (This may take several seasons.)
How to Grow Yew from Seed
Growing yew from seed is an exact science and a process that takes many years to complete. It involves storing seeds in a potting medium in the freezer for 10 months to several years, and then checking on them periodically to see if they’ve sprouted. Once sprouted, the seeds can be planted and tended to as seedlings, but the process of growing the plant big enough to be transplanted outside can take years. Hence, many gardeners prefer to buy starts at the nursery or take cuttings from their existing plants.
Potting and Repotting Yew
Similar to most evergreens, yew looks great in containers and, in some climates, can be kept outside in pots year-round. Yew tends to grow slowly in containers, making it a good choice for gardeners who want to use it as an entryway statement or along a walkway. Plant yew in a clay or terracotta pot that has good drainage and keep it regularly watered, but not continuously wet, year-round. Come fall, relocate your yew to an area of partial shade, as warm day temperatures and plummeting night temperatures can be stressful on the plant. After a few years in a container, your yew will need to be transplanted into the ground.
In most climates, the Yew can tolerate cold winter temperatures without protection. To prevent issues and help retain needles, water yew frequently in the fall up until the soil is frozen. Planting yew on the north-facing side of a building will prevent winter needle burn, a condition that results from the needles heating up in the day, and then freezing come nightfall.
Common Pests and Plant Diseases
Yew can fall victim to several evergreen sapsuckers, including mealybugs and scale. Both bugs overwinter as nymphs, and then emerge in the spring to feed, as they hatch and mature. Infestation can result in needle loss, yellowing branches, dieback, and mold issues.
Mealybugs and scale are hard to control with insecticides, as they have grown resistant to most chemicals. To control infestation, remove the insects with a forcible spray from the garden hose, while also removing the “grandmother” (older) plants that have deteriorated. Additionally, you can spot treat with a 70 percent diluted solution of isopropyl alcohol, testing it first for plant burn and applying it once a week until the infestation clears.
Common plant diseases rarely affect yew.
Common Problems with the Yew
Root rot or “wet feet” is a common problem with yew plants. This plant is notorious for dying if it sits in soil that is waterlogged. That said, too little watering can also cause similar issues. Sticking to strict watering protocols will help you avoid both root rot and yellowing branches and needles.
Heavy snows can result in winter damage, like broken branches, and browning needles. After a big snowfall, make sure to remove any lingering snow buildup to prevent this problem. Late summer pruning can also help a yew plant or tree avoid breakage during storms.
Common Questions about the Yew:
What is the average lifespan of a yew tree?
Yew hedges and trees have incredibly long lives if properly maintained. Some European English yew trees have lived to an age of 1,500 to 3,000 years old. Yew trees and hedges have the ability to renew themselves, and their bending branches can even re-root. For this reason, yew has become a symbol of immortality.
Why do yew trees bleed?
Yew trees often bleed their blood-red sap if the tree has been injured by breakage or winter damage. This is usually not an issue of concern, as bleeding yew trees scar very easily. Ancient legends associate this bleeding to the tree’s sympathy with Jesus after his death on the cross.
What is yew wood used for?
Handcrafted wooden bows are commonly built from a combination of sapwood and heartwood from mature yew trees. The sapwood (the white wood that is on the outside of the tree, just below the bark) forms the back of the bow and excels under tension, making it the perfect material for this hunting tool.
Well, Folks I am going to get myself some Yew and have my husband plant them for me!