Plants With a Past: The Yew

Ah, the poor, benighted yew. Once the subject of reverence and worship, this magnificent tree (please note I did not say shrub, more on that later) has come to play an almost comically insignificant role in the modern landscape. In fact, the yew has sunk so low as to become the horticultural equivalent of toilet paper – the perfect throwaway plant. Don’t know what to stick in that awful spot? How about a yew? Need a bit of green? Toss in a yew. Can’t think of what to put round the foundation? In goes a yew. This last is probably the greatest indignity of all. There, rammed in a tiny space near the rocky foundation soil it abhors, and tortured with shears into weird contortions in a vain attempt to dwarf its large and generous nature, the unfortunate yew nevertheless strives to do its best by clothing itself in lovely dark green foliage and bright berries, only to have passersby (if they deign to notice it at all) sniff, “What a boring, misshapen yew.” This noble plant is truly undeserving of such slander, and therefore, in the charitable spirit of this holiday season, I thought it high time to rise to the yew’s defense.

Ancient yews - Taxus baccata.. The only question here is which came first, the monastery - now in ruins- or the yews?

First, though, we need to dispel a few misconceptions, the primary one being the yew’s place in the horticultural world. With the exception of a few modern dwarf cultivars, most yews are not shrubs, but multi-stemmed trees, many achieving amazing size and age. In fact, several yews found in England have reached heights of over 80 feet, and have trunks well over eight feet in diameter. Though difficult to date by ring count because their trunks are often hollow, these yews are now thought by scientists to be over four thousand years old, potentially making them among the oldest living creatures on earth. But a few thousand years is nothing compared to the length of this species’ pedigree – the yew is actually one of the oldest plant families still extant on the globe. The ten or so modern members of the Taxus genus can trace their roots back to fossils found in rocks of the Triassic Period, 200 million years ago. Surviving millennia after millennia of tremendous climatic changes, the mighty yew reached its peak just after the last Ice Age, when European forests consisted primarily of giant yews.

Then along came man.

Just when our association with yews started is unclear, but as far back as the dawn of history yews were worshiped for their great size and age, becoming associated with death and rebirth in several cultures, including that of the Greeks, Romans, and Celts. This connection with death is not without cause: the plant’s very botanical name, Taxus, comes from the Greek taxon, or toxin. Almost every part of this plant is poisonous if consumed. The Romans used the yew in their burial rights, and the Celts planted yews, often in circles and groups mimicking their stone constructions, to mark holy sites. It’s interesting to note that many of the ancient yews that today so picturesquely dot English churchyards may actually predate the Christian buildings now surrounding them, having previously marked the spot of primeval pagan rituals.

The yews’ decline began when humans discovered that yew wood was extremely strong and supple, perfect for making bows. In fact, the famous English Long Bow was made exclusively of yew. This deadly instrument, which could out-range and out-power any other bow of its day, changed the nature of warfare in the Middle Ages: in its first major use at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, 4000 English archers using Long Bows inflicted over 40,000 casualties on the pride of French knighthood, suffering only 26 dead in return. Suddenly every general wanted yew wood, and within a hundred years or so, the great forests of European yews were pretty much gone, carved into lethal bows. A sad bit of poetic irony, one supposes, for a tree formerly associated with Hecate, the goddess of death and the underworld.

This is all fine and good, I can hear almost you say, but presuming that neither archery nor poisoning are in my immediate future, why would I want to include yews in my garden? Well, to my mind, the yew is probably the best of all evergreens for screening – far better than many of the other species more commonly used.

Unlike hemlock or pines which lose their lower branches as they mature, yews, like the stately matrons the are, remain decently clothed right to the ground, and their dense foliage is almost impenetrable to prying eyes. Also, because of their history as forest plants, yews have become well accustomed to tolerating low light levels, and they thrive in shady spots where few other large shrubs or trees will grow. Given enough room to mature, yews also make excellent specimens in the landscape. And yes, of course, yews (the dwarf types) can be utilized – with moderation – as foundation plants. The caveat here, however, is that they should be deployed sparingly as evergreen foils within groupings of other interesting evergreen and deciduous materials, where the yews’ lush, dark needles can be contrasted with other, lighter foliage. Used alone in large masses around the foundation, the yew’s funereal nature reasserts itself and makes for extremely lugubrious plantings. In addition, yews generally grow slowly, take very well to shearing, and can make excellent topiary specimens. The yew is bothered by few pests (other than deer, which unfortunately manage to tolerate the poisoned foliage) and thrives in a wide variety of soils and growing conditions – though surprisingly for an evergreen, yews prefer their soil on the alkaline side. Too much acid, and the foliage turns a sickly yellow. The only thing a yew can’t abide is poorly drained soil – faced with constantly wet feet the plant will soon sicken and die.

Before you plant a yew though, it’s important to understand that the family varies widely in shape and growth habit – from narrow upright conicals to massively broad trees to tiny low ground-hugging shrubs, as well as everything in between – so you need to select carefully. Broadly speaking, the commercially available yew family can be divided into four groups: the English Yews (Taxus baccata,) which range from huge tree giants to tiny dwarfs and are excellent for a wide variety of uses; Taxus canadensis, the Canadian yews, which are mostly low groundcover plants; the Japanese yews, which grow from 10-40’ and are the poor yews so often misused around foundations (To be avoided in tight quarters, they are excellent for specimen, hedge and topiary use.); and finally, Taxus x media, the Anglo-Japanese yews which vary widely by type and include some best dwarf cultivars for small gardens. Always keep in mind that despite the yew’s relatively slow growth rate, these plants will in fact reach the size indicated on the labels far faster than you think, so for both your sake and that our abused friend, choose your yews wisely and well, unless you wish one day to have an unhappy, over-sized member of this ancient clan towering balefully over your garden.


Plants With a Past: The Yew — 2 Comments

  1. You return me to an appreciation of the majesty of yews, even though I’m English and they say CHURCHYARD to me, and even though deer seem to adore eating them. But I live on a saltmarsh. I could protect a yew with anti-deer mesh until it grew out of their reach, but could it survive the salty winds from the sea?

  2. Well, my dear S, now you know why they say chuchyard! They were the church before the yard. At any rate, you might try taxus baccata in a protected spot away from the spray. I have some growing in the front of the house where they get the full brunt of a major roadway winter, but I’m fairly sure direct ocean salt spray would be deadly if extended.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.