Yews have more than proven their value in American gardens during the past century. It is doubtful if any other conifers are so generally useful in such a wide range of situations.
Since the two species native to North America – Canada yew and western yew (Taxus canadensis and Taxus brevifolia, respectively) are not particularly appropriate for most gardens, exotic species and hybrid forms are usually planted today.
The English Yew Arrives
In colonial times, cuttings and small plants of English yew (Taxus baccata) were brought over by early settlers and cherished as ties with the gardens and friends left behind. A few of these yews survive as picturesque old trees, often with handsome red-barked trunks and battered branches.
Some of these may be seen in Rhode Island and New Jersey in protected corners. More frequently, they are found further south.
Many garden varieties of English yew have been segregated and some of the most adaptable are offered by nurseries. Perhaps the most familiar of these is the Irish yew (Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’) which has dominant upright branches and columnar habit.
Unfortunately, this distinctive plant is not reliable north of USDA hardiness zone 7a, but some hybrid yews promise to give much the same effect in northern gardens.
Spreading English yew (Taxus baccata ‘Spreading’) has a low growth habit and more than a trace of weeping character in its beautifully arranged branchlets. It is moderately hardy and, as there are no other plants that give just the same effect, it has an important place in planting design.
It is especially useful for plantings on banks and slopes. This is one yew that does not lend itself well to shearing.
Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata) was introduced to England in 1855 through the efforts of the indefatigable plant hunter Robert Fortune. This tree has proven a great addition to gardens in more severe climates than those where English yews thrive.
Taxus cuspidata ‘Nana’ Compact Shrubby Form
In the 1860s, Dr. George R. Hall brought plants from the species of a more compact shrubby form to his garden in Rhode Island. This is Taxus cuspidata ‘Nana’: In its juvenile stages, it forms low-spreading plants that are truly dwarf and most valuable for low plantings and hedges.
Old specimens reach 6 to 8′ feet in height and three times as much in their spread. For many gardens, the best yews are the hybrids between English and Japanese yews which have originated in the early 20th Century.
To a gratifying degree, these combine the good horticultural traits of both parents, as well as being intermediate in more technical characteristics. Appropriately enough, the cross was named Taxus x media by the late Professor Alfred Rehder of the Arnold Arboretum. In general, the branchlets resemble those of Japanese yews and the foliage does not have the heavy green effect of English yews.
Excellent Garden Subjects and Superior Qualities
Specimens of plain Taxus x media make excellent garden subjects themselves. However, outstanding individual plants of this cross have been selected for one or several superior qualities. These are known by horticultural variety names.
Hatfield yew (Taxus × media ‘Hatfieldii’) is distinguished by its bluntly conical habit and densely packed branchlets. Its neat outline has enough formality to appear in harmony with buildings or other architectural settings without giving the more artificial formality of clipped specimens.
Hicksii The Different Yew
Hicks yew (Taxus × media ‘Hicksii’) is very different, although it also has markedly upright branches and a formal habit of growth, especially when young. Young plants are distinctly columnar, and this habit is retained in natural growth until specimens are 5 or 6′ feet high.
Then they begin to spread somewhat, and their outline becomes oblong and more plumelike. Hicks yews are ideal for hedges. Gardeners with little space available or who begrudge the several shearings that most hedges require each year will do well to consider this candidate.
Several other forms of Taxus media may be found in catalogs, including Browns and Wellesley yews. Each is distinctive and, like the two discussed above, they are propagated exclusively from cuttings to duplicate the characteristics of the original.
Seedlings of these would usually be typical Taxus × media and likely excellent in their own right, but they are not entitled to the cultivar name of their parent.
Yews are singularly free of troubles in most gardens where conditions are moderately encouraging – at least common disease and insect pests cause no difficulties.
Gardeners who live in rural or wilderness areas should be aware that deer have a voracious appetite for yews in winter – an attraction that extends to so many choice trees and shrubs.