Japanese Yews and English Yew Bushes: a Variety of Choices

Shrubs Useful in Foundation Plantings and Hedges

Yew hedge with door in it (archway).
Taxus baccata can be trained over an arch, giving you a "door" in your hedge. J. Paul Moore/Getty Images

Many kinds of bushes and trees in the Taxus genus are grown in the landscape, including Japanese yews, English yew bushes, and crosses between the two. They are classified as conifers. Learn about several types before making any decision to buy. Also become acquainted with how these versatile shrubs are best used in the landscape. 

As always when discussing plants, it is best to begin with the taxonomy, to ensure that everyone knows the exact plant to which we are referring. In the case of Taxus, we must pay particular attention to the taxonomy of the Japanese yews.

When people use the common name, "Japanese yews," much confusion can arise. All true yews belong to the genus, Taxus. That includes Taxus cuspidata, plants which bear the common name, "Japanese yews." However, plants of an entirely different genus, namely, Podocarpus macrophylla, are also commonly referred to as "Japanese yews," so be careful. This is just one more instance showing why we use scientific names of plants when we need to be exact.

Plant Uses, Features

Yew bushes often serve as foundation plants around a house. They are also common in hedges. Varieties used in privacy hedges are often much taller than they are wide (since you need the extra height for screening). By contrast, yews with a spreading habit are more suitable as foundation plants or in short, decorative hedges.

Yew bushes are slow growers. This is not necessarily a drawback for shrubs used as foundation plants, since a slow growth-rate means there is less care that you need to give them in the way of pruning or shearing. But homeowners who plant hedges (especially hedges specifically for privacy) usually want quick results. If you have your heart set on using yew bushes to form a privacy hedge, buy mature plants. Otherwise, the wait will be too much for you.

All yew bushes are needle-bearing evergreens. The foliage on most is dense and is a dark green color on top, with a lighter underside. The needles are flat. Most yew bushes can be grown in USDA plant hardiness zones 4 to 7 in ground with a neutral soil pH. They are generally dioecious. Yew bushes produce what appear to be red berries; they are actually called "arils," a type of cone.

Yew bushes can be grown in sun, partial shade, or full shade. Their shade-tolerance gives landscape designers an important option in areas tough to plant. Another selling point is the ease with which overgrown yew bushes can be rejuvenated. Most mature evergreens do not respond well to a severe pruning. Arborvitae and yew bushes are the exceptions.

Sizes and shapes vary widely between the different varieties of yew bushes. It is important to be aware of these differences, so that you can grow a type that suits the use you have in mind for it in your landscaping.

Let's take a look, then, at some of the cultivars of yew bushes, what they look like, and common uses for them. English yew bushes (Taxus baccata) and Japanese yews are among the most popular in the landscape, as are their hybrid crosses (Taxus × media), which include Hick's yews and Taunton yews. But there are also types native to North America that can be found growing wild there.

Irish Yew Bushes, Japanese Yews, Hick's Yews, Taunton Yews, and an American Type

  • Spreading English yew bushes (Taxus baccata Repandens): spreading growth habit, 2 to 4 feet high by 12 to 15 feet wide, and used as foundation plants or in short, decorative hedges
  • Irish Yews (Taxus baccata Fastigiata): columnar shape, 15 to 30 feet high by 4 to 8 feet wide, and used in privacy hedges; one of the English yew bushes, despite its common name
  • "Emerald Spreader" Japanese yews (Taxus cuspidata Monloo): spreading growth habit, 30 inches high by 8 to 10 feet wide, and used as foundation plants or in short, decorative hedges
  • Hick's yews (Taxus × media Hicksii): columnar shape, 12 to 20 feet high by 6 to 10 feet wide, and used in privacy hedges
  • Taunton yews (Taxus × media Tauntonii): spreading growth habit, 3 to 4 feet high by 3 to 4 feet wide, and used as foundation plants or in short, decorative hedges; resists winter-burn
  • American (or "Canadian") yews (Taxus canadensis): spreading growth habit, on average 4 feet tall by 7 feet wide; one of the kinds indigenous to parts of North America; an alternate common name is "ground hemlock," even though it is not related to Canadian hemlock trees (Tsuga canadensis)

    The oil derived from yew bushes, taxol, is used for treating breast and ovarian cancer. But don't let that fool you. All parts of yew bushes are poisonous, except for the fleshy red berry. And since yew seeds are poisonous, and the seed matures within the berry, even the latter can be considered "off limits." Keep small children away from yew bushes!

    Yews and Christmas Decorating

    But let's end on a lighter note about yews. These plants 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 focused on greenery. Whole yews have been used as Christmas trees.

    It was Prince Albert who solidified the place of the Christmas tree in Britain. But Albert's tree was not the first. That honor, according to Denise Silvester-Carr, falls to the yew set up as a Christmas tree by Queen Charlotte, another royal of German descent, in 1800:

    "Prince Albert is usually credited with introducing the Christmas tree that graces nearly every house and high street in December. In truth, they appeared 40 years earlier. Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, had a yew tree hung with sweets and toys and illuminated with small wax candles for a party for local children at Windsor on Christmas Day in the year 1800."