Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Sometimes a plant commonly used in the landscape looks entirely different when allowed to grow to its full potential. In my opinion, Japanese Yew is one of those plants. Growing up, I spent many hours with my dad helping to trim the yews in front of the house that stand about three feet tall. I never thought about them being any bigger. To me, they looked like green meatballs and took way too much time, and that was the world of yews.
Left to its own devices, a yew will grow to heights of ten to forty feet high! It takes on a desirable pyramidal to rounded shape that is open and airy. This is a far cry from the plants of my youth, forced to conform to a spherical shape!
The Japanese Yew does in fact come from Japan. It was brought to Rhode Island from Japan by missionary Dr. George Hall in 1862. Theophilus Hatfield, a professional gardener from Massachusetts, is credited with introducing the Taxus genus to the ornamental horticulture world through his seedling production experiments. Nurseryman Henry Hicks of New York popularized the yew with the general public, and his 1924 introduction Taxus x media 'Hicksii' was popular with homeowners then and still is today.
The Japanese Yew and other yews can withstand anything from full sun to heavy shade. They can tolerate heavy pruning, as in the green meatballs of my youth. Their one non-negotiable requirement is moisture. They must have well-drained soil and cannot tolerate wet feet. Typically they remain green all winter long, though parts may die back in harsh winter conditions.
Though they look innocent enough, yews are extremely poisonous plants. The entire plant, except for the fruit is toxic. Herbivores are particularly sensitive to the taxine alkaloids in yews, which affect the heart. Ingesting six to eight ounces of fresh yew is enough to kill an adult cow or horse.