Yew Plant Profile

yew hedge

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

There are many varieties of trees and shrubs that make up the yew (Taxus) genus. In general, these plants are easy to care for and can tolerate a range of growing conditions. They are highly adaptable for landscaping and make a nice addition to a garden border or in a mass planting. These plants also have long been a part of the Christmas tradition in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. Sprigs are often cut from yews to be used like holly in natural Christmas decorations.

Yew plants are conifers, so they produce cones (along with red berries) instead of flowers. They feature evergreen needles and widely range in size and shape. They have a fairly fast growth rate that slows as the plant matures. And they're best planted in the spring or fall.

Botanical Name Taxus
Common Name Yew bush, yew tree, yew shrub
Plant Type Evergreen perennial
Mature Size 4 to 20 feet tall, depending on the variety
Sun Exposure Full sun to shade
Soil Type Loamy, medium moisture, well-draining
Soil pH Neutral
Bloom Time Nonflowering
Flower Color Nonflowering
Hardiness Zones 2 to 10, depending on the variety
Native Areas Europe, Africa, Asia
closeup of yew berries
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault 
yew detail
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault
Berries of a yew bush
 Wataru Yanagida / Getty Images

How to Grow Yew

Yews often serve as foundation plantings around a house. They are also common in hedges and topiaries. The varieties used for privacy hedges are typically much taller than they are wide, as you need the extra height for screening. By contrast, yews with a low spreading habit are more suitable for foundation plants or short decorative hedges.

Excellent soil drainage is key for growing yews. These plants can be susceptible to root rot and other fungal infections often due to soggy soil conditions. Overall the plants are low-maintenance. In general, you can expect to water occasionally, as well as fertilize and prune annually.

Light

Yew plants can be grown in full sun, partial shade, or even full shade. For healthy and lush branching growth, opt for a spot that gets several hours of sun each day. Too much shade can cause thin and floppy growth.

Soil

Yew can tolerate several soil types, as long as the soil has good drainage. Poorly drained soil can result in root rot. Yew tends to thrive in rich loamy soil with a neutral soil pH.

Water

Yew prefers a moderate amount of soil moisture. But it has some tolerance both for drought along with considerably moist soil (as long as it's not in standing water). During the first year after you plant your yew, water it regularly to maintain even soil moisture. Then, you generally only have to water mature plants during prolonged periods without rainfall.

Temperature and Humidity

The growing zones for yew plants somewhat vary by species. In general, the plants are fairly intolerant to prolonged extreme temperatures, both hot and cold. They also prefer to be planted in a site that's sheltered from strong winter winds. Humidity typically isn't a problem for yews, though they can struggle in extremely hot, humid summer weather.

Fertilizer

Fertilize your yew in the early spring, beginning a year after planting. One option to enrich the soil is to spread a half-inch layer of mulch and/or compost starting a foot away from the trunk and extending out to the yew's drip line (where rain falls from the outer branches). Increase to a 1-inch layer if you have poor soil. Another option is to use a granular, high-nitrogen fertilizer raked into the soil starting a foot from the trunk and extending out to the drip line.

Toxicity of Yew

While a few animals have adapted to the toxicity, all parts of yew plants except for the flesh of the berry are poisonous to humans and most animals. (Because toxic seeds develop within those berries, they're also unsafe to eat.) Some signs of poisoning in both people and animals include vomiting, difficulty breathing, irregular heart rate and blood pressure, dilated pupils, seizures, and even death. If you suspect a poisoning, seek medical attention immediately.

Pruning

Overgrown yew can be rejuvenated with a good pruning and shaped to your preference. It's not essential to prune annually, but it can be helpful to promote lush growth. The best time to prune is during the early spring before new foliage appears. Use hand pruners or branch loppers to cut branches back to where they join other branches. Furthermore, remove any dead, damaged, or diseased branches as you spot them.

Varieties of Yew

There are many types of yew that are popular for landscape use, including:

  • Taxus baccata 'Repandens': This variety grows roughly 2 to 4 feet high by 12 to 15 feet wide and is used for foundation plantings or as short hedges.
  • Taxus canadensisKnown as Canadian yew, this species has a spreading growth habit and reaches around 4 feet tall by 7 feet wide.
  • Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata': This plant has a columnar shape at around 15 to 30 feet high by 4 to 8 feet wide and is often used for privacy hedges.
  • Taxus cuspidata 'Monloo': This variety grows to around 3 feet high by 8 to 10 feet wide and is used for foundation plantings or short hedges.
  • Taxus × media 'Hicksii': This plant also has a columnar shape at 12 to 20 feet high by 6 to 10 feet wide and is used for privacy hedges.