If you're looking for a shrub that stands up to most anything, yew found it! Yew shrubs have been around for ages and are extremely long-lived plants. It is even believed that the ancient (and mythical) Yggdrasil tree of Norse mythology was a yew tree. These plants are tolerant of many conditions, from drought and shade to sun and moist soil. With a little annual maintenance, you can keep these shrubs shaped into all sorts of different designs. Just be careful planting these around small children and animals because most parts of yews are poisonous if ingested.
With more than 400 registered cultivars to choose from, you have plenty of options when it comes to yews. Originally, there were simply different species of yews available from varying different climates and regions. Today most yews commercially available are hybrids of several species. This allows them to have the best traits of many different parents, which makes them adaptable in more gardens.
Yew Care Must-Knows
Because they are conifers, yews don't have flowers like many other plants do; they produce cones instead. Yew plants are separately male and female, so one shrub may be a male and produce only pollen, while another produces only fruit. The pollen of yews can cause severe reactions to those sensitive to seasonal allergies, and the pollen grains themselves are very small. Avoid planting male varieties if you are particularly susceptible to pollen allergies.
Female yews produce small red berries that surround a single seed, which is the only part of the plant that does not contain the deadly toxin produced by yews. This is because the plant attracts birds to eat the fruit, and the seed coat of the single seed is hard enough that the digestive process of birds does not harm it. When the birds fly to a new area, they act as the dispersal method to help spread yew seeds around.
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Yews are tough plants that are tolerant of many different situations. The biggest thing to avoid is standing water or soils that may stay wet for long periods of time. This will encourage root rot and overall decline of the plant.
For the best branching habit of your yew shrubs, plant them in full sun. While yews are just as happy in part sun and can even grow fine in full shade, keep in mind that the more shade, the more regularly you'll need to prune to prevent loose and floppy growth. Part shade is beneficial for any gold-leafed varieties, and also provides some protection from winter burn on the foliage.
Pruning is best done in early spring before a yew shrub's new flush of growth. This will ensure that new growth is bushy enough to fill in any holes in the garden. It is not entirely necessary to prune yews every year, but it helps prevent future problems with dead interiors and plants becoming too woody.
Yew plants create an extremely toxic compound in all parts of the plant, except for the fleshy red fruit they produce. This serves as a self-defense mechanism to help prevent animals from eating them. Except for a few animals that have adapted to the toxin and can eat them (sadly, deer are not susceptible to the toxin), this toxin will affect almost all animals. So be careful where you plant these shrubs.
More Varieties of Yew
Taxus baccata 'Dovastonii Aurea' is a small, female yew variety with drooping branches and gold-edged needles. It grows 15 feet tall and 6 feet wide. Zones 7-8
Taxus media 'Hicksii' is a fast-growing hybrid with an open habit that's great for hedges. It's also a hardier substitute for Irish yew. This variety grows 25 feet tall by 10 feet wide. Zones 5-7
Taxus media 'Densiformis' is a good choice for hedges, as it grows into a thick, spreading mound 4 feet tall and 6 feet wide. Zones 5-7
Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata' is the the tall, rounded evergreen often seen in English gardens. It becomes a broad, upright column of greenish-black needles. Its upright branches adapt well to shearing. Grows 30 feet tall and 20 feet wide. Zones 7-8