Growing the Japanese Yew in the Home Garden

Taxus cuspidata

A set of suggestively trimmed Japanese Yew trees
oshokim/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

The Japanese yew is an evergreen, native to several regions of Asia, with spiny needles and red, ornamental fruits. The yew can grow up to fifty feet in its native habitat but generally settles in around twenty to thirty. The yew is widely grown in landscapes for decorative purposes, and it responds well to pruning. However, note that the Japanese yew’s foliage and seeds are quite poisonous and that in many areas of the American northeast it is considered an invasive species.

Latin Name

Taxus cuspidata. The Japanese yew shares its dark green leaves with other plants in the Taxus genus, and it is a member of the yew family or Taxaceae.

Common Names

Japanese yew or spreading yew. There also exist many cultivars of Japanese yew: for instance, ‘Aurescens’ grows in bright yellow before the foliage matures to green, and ‘Expansa’ is so named because its spread is wider than more common variants of the yew.

Preferred USDA Hardiness Zones

It is hardy to zone 4 and is generally found in zones 4-7. Though native only to Asia, it also thrives in many parts of North America, particularly northeastern states like Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Size & Shape

It grows twenty to forty feet tall, though it can reach fifty in the right conditions; in cultivation, however, it is usually much smaller. Left to its own growth pattern, the yew is fairly broad and likes to spread, but many landscapers prune its crown much narrower.


Anything from full shade to full sun – it tolerates a wide variety of sunlight conditions. It tolerates shade quite well for a needled evergreen; this tolerance is part of the reason it is cultivated so far from its natural habitat.


The yew is notable for its spiny, dark-green evergreen needles, which are about one inch long. Its leaves often are tinged yellow on the underside. Its bark is red-brown and scaly, and in the winter its foliage may turn a similar red-brown color.

The Japanese yew is dioecious, which means it grows separate male and female flowers. Both genders are small and innocuous, and its male flowers generally grow on the underside of leaves.

It is notable for its small, red fruit, which grows in small bunches. Each fruit contains a single seed. This fruit is ornamental, and many gardeners consider it attractive.

Design Tips

Taxus cuspidata is a popular plant in landscapes, it tolerates pruning well and can be used in foundation plantings or as a hedge. It can take different shapes, flat-topped or pyramidal, broad or narrow. Some ambitious landscape gardeners even grow it in topiaries. It also can be used as a shade tree and grows well in urban areas.

Growing Tips

The Japanese yew grows in the well-drained soil of about medium moisture and prefers sandy loams. It should be kept moist, but not overly wet. It tolerates a wide variety of sunlight levels, including shade, and is drought-tolerant. In general, this is a fairly tough tree that will grow in most areas that do not experience dramatic rains or heat.


This plant does not require too much maintenance, as long as it is planted in suitable conditions. It is often grown for the purposes of pruning, though, and the Japanese yew can be pruned into a hedge, a pyramidal tree, or any number of shapes and sizes. Though it tolerates pruning any time, it is advisable to prune in early spring.

Pests & Diseases

No major pest problems, but scale, weevils, and mealy bugs have all been known to trouble the yew. A simple pesticide should take care of any problems.

Though the Japanese yew has no major disease problems, it can experience root rot in poorly drained soil, and if left overly exposed in a rough winter can suffer winter burn.