Irish yews (T. baccata fastigiata') strike a pose at the Queen Elizabeth Park, Vancouver.
A symbol of Immortality & Longevity
Common Name: English yew
Botanical Name: Taxus baccata
Form: varies depending on species and/or cultivar
Plant Type: conifer, needle evergreen
Mature Size: 30’-60’ x 15’-25’
Origin: Great Britain, Europe, southwest Asia, north Africa
Hardiness Zone: 6 to 8
Foliage: flat, dark green ½ - 1½” long and up to 1/8” wide
Flowers: inconspicuous, separate male and female flowers on separate plants (dioecious)
Fruit: seeds are wrapped in a red fleshy aril
Stems: leaves spiral around stem
Bark: reddish, peeling, flaky, reveals cinnamon coloured stem underneath
Exposure: sun to shade
Soil: prefers fertile, evenly moist soil with good drainage, does well in chalky soils too
Uses: hedge, screen, shade garden, wildlife, topiary, specimen, accent, background, foundation
Propagation: cuttings, softwood and hardwood
Pruning: easy to prune, responds well to shearing
Problems: intolerant of prolonged sever weather conditions
Toxicity: wear gloves when handling as all parts are poisonous, do not ingest or burn, root rot in wet soils, twig and needle blights, mealybugs, scale insects
The English yew is a favorite evergreen of many gardeners and landscapers throughout the northern hemisphere. It’s longevity is one of its many claims to fame with specimens hundreds of years old. There are many ancient yews in Europe, and one in Scotland that’s over 2000 years old, hence their association to immortality. They are commonly found in the understory of larger trees such as beeches and are often grown in churchyards that are often predate the churches.
Uses: These sturdy, bold, deep green evergreens are so versatile they have many uses in the garden. Grown as a tree or shrub, they are not fussy about their growing conditions. They thrive in sun, shade, clay soil and rich loam. However, the soil must drain well as their roots are prone to rotting.
The deep green evergreen needle-like leaves of yews is commonly used as a backdrop for other plants and as dense screens. Their supple needles are easy to shear into shapes suitable for geometric designs, topiaries and formal hedges. There are many types to choose from low growing, spreading, to tall and columnar.
Flowers, Fruit and Foliage: In spring, yews are flush with new lush foliage. It’s incredibly soft and a light green, that stands out against the older deep green needles. Yews get better with age. Their sturdy branches thicken to become broad strong arms. As they age their outer bark flakes off, which reveals smooth cinnamon coloured bark underneath. Separate male and female flowers emerge on the different plants in March and April (dioecious). Both male and female flowers are inconspicuous. Technically, yews are considered conifers as their seeds are not inside an ovary but are enclosed in a red, open cup-like structure called an aril. Their ‘fruits’ resemble pimento stuffed olives, however, the seeds that lie within are toxic, so don’t add them to your martini.
Wildlife: Their dense foliage and branching habit is extremely valuable to wildlife. It provides a haven, a refuge against predators and the weather as is ideal for nesting. The yew fruit provides food form many animals especially birds.
Commercial Value: Yew wood has been used for centuries to make furniture, pipes, tool handles, long bows, spears and other essentials. Incredibly, a ancient spear was found to be over 450,000 years old! Although all parts are poisonous, it’s also used as anti-cancer medicine.