Yew Tree

Taxus is a genus of coniferous trees or shrubs known as yews in the family Taxaceae, approximately eight species of ornamental evergreens, distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere. They are relatively slow-growing and can be very long-lived. Other trees called yew but not in this genus are the plum-yew, Prince Albert yew (Podocarpaceae), and stinking yew. Two species are always shrubby, but the others may become trees up to 25 metres (about 80 feet) tall. Yew, with its contrasting red berries, predates the tradition of the Christmas tree and is strongly associated with Christianity. For the holiday, sprigs are commonly cut and used like holly in natural Christmas decorations. The yew tree’s presence in churchyards has earned it the nickname 'tree of the dead'. Yew bark, needles, and fruit are toxic to humans and animals.

Yews have rich, dark-green foliage. The branches are erect or spreading and are closely covered with flattened, linear leaves about 1/2 to 3 centimetres (about 1/5 to 1 1/5 inches) long. The leaves have two yellowish- or grayish-green bands along the underside. They are attached in spirals around the branch but, because of a twist at their bases, appear to grow in two rows along the sides of the branch. The reproductive structures, small, rounded, scaly, and conelike on pollen-bearing plants and minute, green, and solitary on ovule-bearing plants, are located between the leafstalk and the stem. The seeds are usually solitary, borne at the ends of short branches. As a seed matures, it is enveloped by a fleshy, red, cup-shaped aril. The foliage and seeds, but not the arils, contain a poisonous alkaloid, sometimes fatal to livestock.

Table of Contents


4 - 100 feet (depending on the variety)

Width-Circumference (Avg)

4 - 20 feet (depending on the variety)

Approximate pH

5.0 - 7.0

Types of Yew

  • Taxus baccata 'Repandens', which grows roughly 2 to 4 feet high by 12 to 15 feet wide and is used for foundation plantings or as short hedges.

  • Known as Canadian yew, Taxus canadensis has a spreading growth habit and reaches around 4 feet high by 7 feet wide.

  • Taxus brevifolia, The Pacific yew is a medium-sized conifer with short needle-like leaves, soft bright red rounded fruits, and reddish-brown bark. Also called the Western yew, this needled evergreen has a dome-shaped crown. The Pacific yew is a slow-growing tree that matures at 33 to 50 ft. (10 – 15 m) tall.

  • Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata' is pillar-shaped and grows 15 to 30 feet high and 4 to 8 feet wide. It's often used for privacy hedges.

  • The Taxus cuspidata 'Monloo' variety grows to a mature height of 3 feet and spreads 8 to 10 feet wide. This cultivar is commonly used for foundation plantings or short hedges.

  • Taxus × media 'Hicksii' is another variety used for privacy hedges. It is column-shaped and grows 15 feet high by 20 feet wide.

  • Taxus baccata ‘David’ is the columnar evergreen small tree has erect branches with green and gold leaves arranged spirally. It matures at 8 to 10 ft. (2.4 – 3 m).

  • Taxus baccata ‘Dovastoniana’ is the small, spreading yew tree has dark green leaves growing on branches with pendulous tips. The fast-growing yew matures at 6 to 15 ft. (1.8 – 4.5 m) tall and up to 8 ft. (2.4 m) wide.

  • Taxus baccata ‘Standishii’ cultivar is a columnar evergreen tree with golden-yellow needle leaves and coral-red fruits. The yew cultivar is perfect for containers or small gardens and grows 5 ft. (1.5 m) tall and 2 ft. (0.6 m) wide.

  • Taxus cuspidata ‘Aurescens’ (Golden Japanese Yew) is a small shrub with golden foliage, growing 1 ft. (0.3 m) tall and 3 ft. (1 m) wide.

  • Taxus cuspidata ‘Capitata’ is a tall pyramidal evergreen yew, growing up to 25 ft. (7.6 m) tall.

  • Taxus cuspidata ‘Densa’ is dwarf shrub grows 4 ft. (1.2 m) tall and 8 ft. (2.4 m) wide.

  • Known as Himalayan Yew, Taxus wallichiana is a medium-sized tree with a conical shape, spreading crown, dense foliage consisting of dark green lanceolate-shaped leaves, and red or orange oval fruits. Himalayan yews usually grow to 10 m (33 ft.) tall, but can reach up to 100 ft. (30 m) tall. Its bark is reddish-brown that peels off in strips revealing purplish patches.

Growing Yew

How to Grow Yew From Seed

Growing yew from seed is an exact science and a process that takes many years to complete. It involves storing seeds in a potting medium in the freezer for 10 months to several years, and then checking on them periodically to see if they've sprouted. Once sprouted, the seeds can be planted and tended to as seedlings, but the process of growing the plant big enough to be transplanted outside can take years. Hence, many gardeners prefer to buy starts at the nursery or take cuttings from their existing plants.

Yew Care

In landscaping, yew often serves as a foundation plant placed in front of houses. It is also commonly used 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 profile are more suitable for use as foundation plants or short decorative hedges.

Excellent soil drainage is the key to successfully growing yew, as soggy conditions make this plant susceptible to fungal infections. But generally speaking, the plant is low-maintenance, only needing water occasionally and fertilizing and pruning annually.


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


Yew tolerates several soil types, as long as the soil has good drainage. It thrives in rich, loamy soil with a neutral to slightly alkaline soil pH of 5.0 to 8.0. It also does well, surprisingly, in heavy clay. However, any planting site that traps water may result in root rot.


Yew prefers a moderate amount of soil moisture, yet it tolerates short periods of drought or overwatering, as long as the roots are not left standing in water. When establishing yew during the first year, water it weekly to maintain even soil moisture. After that, weekly waterings are only needed during drought periods when natural rainfall will not provide enough moisture.

Temperature and Humidity

The hardiness zones for yew vary by species. In general, the plant does not tolerate prolonged extreme temperatures—hot or cold—and prefers to be planted in a site that's sheltered from strong winter winds. Humidity typically isn't a problem for yew, though it can struggle in extremely hot and humid summer weather.


Fertilize your yew in the early spring, beginning one year after planting. Enrich the soil by spreading a 1-inch layer of mulch or compost starting a foot away from the plant's trunk and extending out to its drip line (where rain falls from the outermost branches). You can also use a granular, high-nitrogen fertilizer raked into the soil starting a foot away from the trunk and extending out to the drip line. Please refer to the product directions for the amount of fertilizer to use, noting that using slightly under the recommendation will prevent over-fertilization.

Pruning and Propagating Yew


Overgrown yew can be rejuvenated with a good pruning, while shaping it to your preference. It's not essential to prune yew annually, but it can be a helpful ritual, one that promotes lush growth. Prune yew in the early spring before any new foliage appears. Use hand pruners or branch loppers to cut branches back to their joints. Remove dead, damaged, or diseased branches as you spot them.

Propagating Yew

The best way to propagate yew is through cuttings. While this method takes time, it is still faster than propagating yew from seed (which can take several years to germinate). Propagating by cuttings also yields offspring that look exactly like the parent. So, if you'd like to extend a hedge or foundation cutting, this is the way to go.

Here's how to propagate yew by cuttings:

  1. Gather pruning scissors, rooting hormone powder, pots, sand, and potting soil.

  2. Take 4- to 6-inch cuttings from your yew plant in the late summer or early fall. Make sure you're cutting from the softwood portion of the bush. (Softwood is the stage between "new growth" and "hardwood," when the plant's stem is just beginning to toughen.) Choose strong, upright shoots.

  3. Dip each cutting into rooting powder and place it into a pot filled with moist sand. Keep the sand wet until roots form. Relocate the pots to an area of bright light.

  4. Once several weeks have passed, examine the bottom of the cuttings to see if they've formed roots.

  5. Next, fill pots with potting soil, water them, and place the newly rooted cuttings into the soil, taking care to fully bury the roots. Let the baby plants grow in pots until they are big enough to be transplanted into the ground in the spring. (This may take several seasons.)

Potting and Repotting Yew

Similar to most evergreens, yew looks great in containers and, in some climates, can be kept outside in pots year-round. Yew tends to grow slowly in containers, making it a good choice for gardeners who want to use it as an entryway statement or along a walkway. Plant yew in a clay or terracotta pot that has good drainage and keep it regularly watered, but not continuously wet, year-round. Come fall, relocate your yew to an area of partial shade, as warm day temperatures and plummeting night temperatures can be stressful on the plant. After a few years in a container, your yew will need to be transplanted into the ground.


In most climates, yew can tolerate cold winter temperatures without protection. To prevent issues and help retain needles, water yew frequently in the fall up until the soil is frozen. Planting yew on the north-facing side of a building will prevent winter needle burn, a condition that results from the needles heating up in the day, and then freezing come nightfall.

Pests and Plant Diseases

Yew can fall victim to several evergreen sapsuckers, including mealybugs and scale. Both bugs overwinter as nymphs, and then emerge in the spring to feed, as they hatch and mature. Infestation can result in needle loss, yellowing branches, dieback, and mold issues.

Mealybugs and scale are hard to control with insecticides, as they have grown resistant to most chemicals. To control infestation, remove the insects with a forcible spray from the garden hose, while also removing the "grandmother" (older) plants that have deteriorated. Additionally, you can spot treat with a 70 percent diluted solution of isopropyl alcohol, testing it first for plant burn and applying it once a week until the infestation clears.

Common plant diseases rarely affect yew.

Common Problems With Yew

Root rot or "wet feet" is a common problem with yew plants. This plant is notorious for dying if it sits in soil that is waterlogged. That said, too little watering can also cause similar issues. Sticking to strict watering protocols will help you avoid both root rot and yellowing branches and needles.

Heavy snows can result in winter damage, like broken branches, and browning needles. After a big snowfall, make sure to remove any lingering snow buildup to prevent this problem. Late summer pruning can also help a yew plant or tree avoid breakage during storms.



Yew is often grown for ornamental purposes, either as a tree or as clipped hedges and topiary of all shapes.

As an evergreen tree, the yew is symbolic of everlasting life and rebirth; it was held sacred by Druids in pre-Christian times.

Yew came to symbolise death and resurrection for the ancient Celts which continued into the Christian era; yew branches were carried on Palm Sunday and at funerals for many centuries. Today, ancient yew trees are often associated with churchyards.

Food and drink

The fleshy red seed coverings (arils) are eaten by many bird species, including fieldfares and blackbirds, and mammals such as squirrels and dormice. Yew leaves are a food source for some caterpillars.


Most parts of the Yew tree (except for the bright red arils) are highly poisonous to mammals when ingested because they contain toxic compounds called taxines.

Yew leaves and bark contain compounds called taxanes which are used to develop drugs such as Taxol® that help treat some forms of cancer.

Materials and fuels

In the Middle Ages, yew wood was used to make longbows and crossbows.

Today, this wood is used in gates, furniture, parquet floors and panelling. It is also used for carving and wood turning.

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