Yew Bush Plant Profile

Yew hedge with door in it (archway).
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. These are easy to care for, drought resistant evergreen shrubs. They are highly adaptable and make a nice addition to a garden border, path, or in a mass planting. 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, but take caution as they are toxic to animals and humans.

  • Botanical Name: Taxus genus
  • Common Name: Yew Bush, Yew Tree, Yew Shrub
  • Plant Type: Needle-bearing evergreens
  • Mature Size: Vary greatly by type from 2 to 4 feet high to 15 to 30 feet high
  • Sun Exposure: Sun, partial shade, or full shade
  • Soil Type: Well-draining soil
  • Soil pH: Neutral
  • Bloom Time: Non-flowering
  • Flower color: Non-flowering, the foliage on most is dense and is a dark green color on top, with a lighter underside.
  • Hardiness Zones: 2 to 10, depending on the variety
  • Native Areas: Western, central and southern Europe, northwest Africa, northern Iran, and southwest Asia
Berries of a yew bush
 Wataru Yanagida / Getty Images

How to Grow Yew Bushes

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. Yew bushes are generally dioecious and they produce what appear to be red berries which are actually called "arils," a type of cone.

They can be susceptible to root rot and other fungal infections and pests like black vine weevil and mites do cause occasional problems.

Light

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.

Soil

The yew bush does not have very specific soil requirements. It will do best in well-draining, rich soil. Loamy or sandy soil is good. If the soil is too sandy or acidic, the shrub will not thrive. Adding compost can help neutralize acidic soil.

Water

During the first year you plant it, water your yew every week in the dry weather. If the weather is particularly dry, water your yew every 7 to 10 days during from the spring to late fall. Don't water too much and allow the soil to get soggy.

Temperature and Humidity

Harsh winter conditions can be the yew's downfall. They can survive through the winter, but special care will help to make sure they do. Strong winter wind and harsh sun can remove moisture from their foliage faster than the cold roots can replenish. This is known as "winter burn." Prevent this by soaking the top 2 feet of soil in fall before the first freeze and add ready-to-use, organic drying agent in the fall.

Fertilizer

Fertilizer your yew in the early spring, but wait a year after planting. In a frost-free area, late fall fertilization is okay. Spread 1/4 to 1/2 inch of mulch and/or compost to the yew's drip line (where rain falls from outer branches). Increase to 1 inch if you have poor soil. Another option is to use granular, high-nitrogen fertilizer at a 12-6-4 mix. Keep it 1 foot from the trunk and extend it to the drip line. Use 1/3 pound of fertilizer per 1 foot of height.

Varieties of Yew Bushes

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. There are also types native to North America that can be found growing wild there.

  • 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)

    Toxicity of Yew Bushes

    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 to animals and humans (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 and pets away from yew bushes!

    Pruning

    Overgrown yew bushes can be rejuvenated with a good pruning. The best time 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. Prune the shrub so the base is wider than the top.