Japanese Yews and English Yew Bushes

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/Photolibrary/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. But 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.

Yew bushes often serve either as foundation plants around a house or 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 (that is, less pruning). 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 4-7 in ground with a neutral soil pH.

They are generally dioecious. Yew bushes produce red berries called "arils."

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. Yew bushes suitable as foundation plants or short, decorative hedges will not necessarily be a good fit for privacy hedges, and vice versa.

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 (Taxus cuspidata) are among the most popular, as are their hybrid crosses (Taxus × media), which include Hick's yews and Taunton yews.

Irish Yew Bushes, Japanese Yews, Hick's Yews, Taunton Yews

  • Spreading English yew bushes (Taxus baccata 'Repandens'): spreading growth habit, 2-4 feet high by 12-15 feet wide, and used as foundation plants or in short, decorative hedges.
  • Irish Yews (Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata'): columnar shape, 15-30 feet high by 4-8 feet wide, and used in privacy hedges; one of the English yew bushes.
  • "Emerald Spreader" Japanese yews (Taxus cuspidata 'Monloo'): spreading growth habit, 30 inches high by 8-10 feet wide, and used as foundation plants or in short, decorative hedges.
  • Hick's yews (Taxus × media 'Hicksii'): columnar shape, 12-20 feet high by 6-10 feet wide, and used in privacy hedges.
  • Taunton yews (Taxus × media 'Tauntonii'): spreading growth habit, 3-4 feet high by 3-4 feet wide, and used as foundation plants or in short, decorative hedges; resists winter-burn.

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.

As is noted in this article on the history of 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.