Taxus–Yew

The yews are a very variable but useful group of plants which have somewhat dropped from favour in the public eye over the past few years. As commonly seen in the British landscape they are dark and sombre and associated somehow with cemeteries and graveyards—an association which needs dispelling as there is a very wide range of shapes, forms and colours available for garden use.

They are adaptable to most soil conditions, succeeding well on chalk and lime and tolerating quite dry shady conditions but all require good drainage. Some forms make excellent hedges and all withstand clipping well.

Taxus baccata, the common or English yew, is one of Britain’s three native conifers and as such is so variable in shape and habit that no clear indication as to rates of growth can be given. There have been a great many varieties produced from this species, one of the most widely used being fastigiata, the Irish yew. This makes a narrow column, broadening considerably with age with the typical dark, almost black-green foliage of the species. A far more attractive form for the garden is the golden fastigiata aurea which has a similar habit but has deep yellow-green leaves turning a golden hue in winter, particularly when planted in an open sunny position. At ten years it will be 5 to 6 ft. in height and eventually may reach as much as 15 to 18 ft.

Taxus baccata, the common or English yew

A useful ground-cover plant is T. b. repandens which is almost prostrate in habit with dark green leaves. It will grow well in shade which gives it particular importance as a landscaping specimen. Of similar habit though a little more prostrate and open is T. b. repens aurea which is a golden-variegated variety and particularly attractive when the new season’s growth begins each early summer. A newish variety from Holland called Summergold also looks promising. This is semi-prostrate and as the name suggests has foliage of a soft golden colour. Both can be expected to grow 12 in. or so in height and spread 3 to 4 ft. in ten years and eventually 2 to 3 ft. in height and perhaps 10 to 12 ft. across after a great many years. Naturally I am only making a rough guess at this!

Lastly one of the most attractive of the golden-foliaged yews is T. b. semperaurea which is slow growing and makes a vase-shaped bush of golden yellow throughout the year. After ten years it will grow to perhaps 3 ft. in height and eventually will reach a height of 8 to 10 ft. with a similar width.

T. cuspidata, the Japanese yew, and its forms are not grown much in Europe but are widely used in the United States because of their superior hardiness to T. baccata. It makes a small to medium-sized tree in its native Japan but it is in its selected varieties that it is most useful. T. c. nana is the variety most seen in Europe, making a dwarf, irregularly shaped bush which will need pruning to keep it attractive. Not in my opinion a particularly desirable conifer.

T. media is a hybrid between 7′. baccata and T. cuspidata and in truly American fashion has been dubbed the Anglo-Japanese yew. This hybrid makes a medium to large-sized spreading shrub and it and its varieties are widely used in the United States. The most commonly seen variety in Europe is hicksii which makes a dense columnar bush of dark green and is probably the best form for hedging purposes. Growing 5 to 6 ft. in ten years, it will eventually reach 20 ft. or more with age.

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