Growing the Japanese Yew in the Home Garden

Taxus cuspidata

A set of suggestively trimmed Japanese Yew trees

oshokim/Flickr

The Japanese yew is an evergreen that is native to several regions of Asia and has spiny needles and red, ornamental fruits. The yew can grow up to 50 feet in its native habitat but generally settles in at around 20 to 30 feet tall. 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 and Common Names

The Latin, or scientific, name for Japanese yew is Taxus cuspidata. The plant shares its dark green leaves with other plants in the Taxus genus, and it is a member of the yew family, or Taxaceae. Japanese yew is also known by the common name "spreading yew."

There are many cultivars of Japanese yew, including ‘Aurescens,’ which grows in bright yellow before the foliage matures to green, and ‘Expansa,’ so named because its spread is wider than more common variants of the yew.

Preferred USDA Hardiness Zones

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

Size and Shape

Japanese yew grows 20 to 40 feet tall, though it can reach 50 feet 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.

Exposure

Grow Japanese yew in anything from full shade to full sun; it tolerates a wide variety of sunlight conditions. It also tolerates shade quite well for a needled evergreen. This tolerance is part of the reason it is cultivated so far from its natural habitat.

Foliage, Flowers, and Fruit

The yew is notable for its spiny, dark-green evergreen needles, which are about 1 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 on the same plant. Both flowers are small and innocuous. The male flowers generally grow on the undersides of the leaves.

Japanese yew 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, where it can take different shapes, such as 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 environments.

Growing Tips

The Japanese yew grows best in well-drained soil with medium moisture and prefers sandy loam. The soil should be kept moist but not overly wet. The plant 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.

Maintenance and Pruning

This plant does not require a lot of maintenance if 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 and Diseases

Yews do not have major pest problems, but scale, weevils, and mealy bugs can give them trouble. 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. If left overly exposed in a rough winter, it can suffer winter burn.