Japanese Plum Yew Growing Profile

Japanese plum yew shrub with branches of dark green needle-shaped leaves

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Cephalotaxus harringtonia, most commonly known as the Japanese plum yew, is an evergreen shrub native to Japan, northeastern China, and Korea. The attractive foliage and ease of care have also made it popular for landscaping. This species has been cultivated in a number of locations from the United States to Europe, where it has been used in gardens for nearly 200 years.

Another reason for the popularity of the Japanese plum yew is the edible fruit that it produces. It is particularly popular in Japan where it is often cultivated for its fruit alone. This is not the same as the Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata), which has seeds and leaves that are poisonous.

A lesser-known use for this plant is for the production of a drug used to treat myeloid leukemia.

Latin Name

The Japanese plum yew was given the botanical name of Cephalotaxus harringtonia in honor of the Earl of Harrington, who was an enthusiastic supporter of the species when it was first introduced to the European continent. You may also see it as Cephalotaxus harringtonii.

Common Names

Most commonly known as the Japanese plum yew, this species derives its name from its fruit that resembles small plums, and the fact that it originates from Japan. Other common names include Assam plum yew, cow-tail pine, Harrington plum yew, plum fruit yew, plum yew, and spreading plum yew.

Preferred USDA Hardiness Zones

Japanese plum yews are suitable for USDA plant hardiness zones 6 to 9.

Size and Shape

Typically grown as a shrub, this species spreads in a rounded form that is wider than it is tall. Average height is two to three feet while the width can reach four feet or more across. It can be trained to grow as a small tree and has even been used to create bonsai.

Japanese plum yew shrub with needled leaves on branches covered with brown fallen leaves

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Japanese plum yew shrub branch with long needle-like leaves closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova


Japanese plum yews prefer partial shade but will grow in full sun to full shade. In cooler climates, it thrives in full sun well, while in warmer climates it fares better when given partial to full shade. 

Foliage, Flowers, and Fruit

The foliage of the Japanese plum is composed of dark green needle-shaped leaves that have a lighter green underside. Leaves are approximately two inches in length and are arranged in two ranks, one on either side of the shoot.

The bark is gray in color, and when the stem matures, peels in thin lengthwise strips. New shoots are green for several years, and then turn red-brown to gray-brown.

A dioecious species, the Japanese plum yew produces separate male and female specimens. It is recommended to have at least one male pollinator for every five female plants to ensure a good crop. If pollinated the female will produce fleshy, egg-shaped fruit, which is approximately one inch long. The fruit is light green with darker green stripes, turning brown when ripe. In Japan, the fruit is quite popular as food and is often cultivated for this purpose.

Design Tips

Japanese plum yews have been cultivated across the world and are used as a garden and landscaping plant. They can be used as an accent plant, foundation plant, border plant, or in mass plantings. Their tolerance for shade makes them good as filler beneath trees or in areas shaded by buildings.

They can also be used around rock gardens or ponds. Japanese plum yews can be grown in planters or containers on patios and can be pruned to serve as a hedge.

Growing Tips

Japanese plum yews prefer a sandy, well-drained soil that is neutral to acidic. They should be watered once per week and more often when subjected to extreme heat. Before new growth begins in the spring they should be given a general-purpose fertilizer.

Maintenance and Pruning

Little maintenance or pruning is needed, however, they will tolerate pruning if needed. It can be pruned into shapes or hedges. Sometimes old stems will retain dead needles.​

Pests and Diseases

Diseases and pests are not a significant problem for Japanese plum yews.