Yew Shrub

Facts about the Yew Shrub

A plant that can live up to 1,000 years is bound to gain favor as a landscaping plant, which is likely one of the reasons the yew shrub is so widely used.  When the facts that the plant is attractive, largely disease resistant and easy to grow is added to the extreme longevity, homeowners have themselves one amazing landscaping plant.



Yews are a type of shrub or tree within a group called Taxus, in the family Taxaceae.  There are several varieties among the most well known, including the Pacific Yew, Japanese Yew and Mexican Yew, as well as several hybrid varieties like the American Yew. The species are coniferous, meaning that they are evergreen, have needle like leaves and form cones for seed disbursement.  In general, yews are slow growing; with some achieving the height of small trees while others remain the size of small shrubs. 

Each of the varieties is very closely related, and all contain alkaloids called taxanes which are highly poisonous.  The only part of the plant which does not have some amount of the alkaloid is the brilliant red berry that forms from the seed cone.  These berries, called arils, are used as foods by a number of birds, which drop the undigested hard seed in their droppings; thereby propagating further generations of the plant.  This same alkaloid that proves to be so fatal to people and animals alike is also used in medical applications as a cancer drug, Taxol; chemically derived from the bark of Pacific Yew tree.

The yew is an ornamental plant that is woody in nature.  Though classified as softwood, the wood is actually quite hard and used often in bent wood applications, furniture and posts.  It is also the base in many smaller objects, like wooden boxes, plates and spoons.  

Historically, yew has been associated with life and death, and can often be found growing in cemeteries and graveyards.

Uses in landscaping

As a hedge plant, the yew shrub is a prized specimen.  Extremely popular for topiary work, yew responds very well to shape trimming.  It is not ideal for quick privacy fencing due to its slow growth rate; however, as a decorative border, its growth habit is negligent in return for the beauty and compact hedge it provides.  Depending on the variety, the color of the flat needles can range from yellowish green to dark green.  In the autumn, the shrub’s appearance is further enhanced by the copious clusters of scarlet berries. 

Growing yew is relatively easy when supplied with the proper conditions.  Sandy loam that retains moisture without being soggy provides the best soil, and shady locations are well tolerated.  The shrubs are propagated mostly be seed, but can also be done through softwood cuttings.  Grafting is another means of propagation that offers faster growth than cuttings or seed. 


Pruning of these shrubs is done more to control the shape of the shrub rather than the growth.  Some types of the shrub can be pruned at any time of the year, while others should be done either in early or late summer.  Removal of dead or dying branches will improve the overall appearance.  Due to the slow growth of yew, prune carefully so as not to cut away more than desired.  It is best to clip small amounts at a time to avoid “scalping” the shrub.

Because the yew is widely disease resistant, it is a carefree plant to grow that requires little maintenance.  Even insect problems are minimal with this evergreen; if spraying is necessary, be sure that the spray reaches the interior of the densely packed shrub to eradicate any pests.

The yew shrub is a very popular landscaping plant, and it is easy to see why.  Attractive, easy to grow, minimal maintenance and resistant to disease; not a combination that is found with most shrubs, but it is exactly what makes the yew so desirable.