Taxus baccata (yew) is a large, evergreen and coniferous tree, often seen growing in churchyards. In gardens it's typically grown as a hedge – it makes a fine, formal, evergreen hedging or topiary plant. As a hedge, yew provides the perfect, dark green backdrop to more colourful plants. Its dense growth habit make it the perfect shelter for nesting birds and its bright red berries are eaten by birds and grey squirrels.
All parts of the yew tree are poisonous, but it's the berries (in particular the seeds) that contain the highest concentrations of taxine alkaloids. Birds and grey squirrels are able to eat the fruit, either eating only the flesh or passing the seed intact through their digestive system. However, it's important to ensure that you, your children and pets do not to consume yew berries or needles, as they could cause severe illness if eaten in sufficient quantities. Yew poisoning symptoms can include:
- Abdominal pain
- Irregular heart rate
- Muscle weakness
- Nausea and vomiting
Yew has a reputation for being slow-growing, but in the right conditions, yew hedging can grow by around 30cm per year.
How to grow yew
Grow yew in moist but well-drained soil in full sun to full shade. Water well as the plant establishes and then you shouldn't need to water again – yews do best in slightly drier soils as they can succumb to root rot in damper conditions. Trim established hedges in summer. Standard yew trees need very little care.
Identifying Taxus baccata
Yew has red-brown, peeling bark with purple tones. Its needle-like leaves are evergreen and grow in rows on either side of the leaf stem. While the flowers are insignificant, the bright red fruits on female trees are easy to spot. The fruits are berry-like arils, and are always open, revealing the hard seed within.
Size, height and spread
Yew trees grow to a maximum height and spread of 20m x 20m. However they may not grow this big in your lifetime – remember that a yew tree isn't considered mature until it's 900 years old!
Value to wildlife
When grown as a hedge, yew provides dense shelter for birds. Its fruit is eaten by birds and small mammals such as squirrels and dormice. Its leaves are a foodplant for the caterpillars of the satin beauty moth.
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Where to plant Taxus baccata
Choose your site carefully when planting yew, as yew trees can grow to more than 20m high and live for up to 3000 years. Yew hedges can be grown in place of fencing and walls for a lush garden boundary, while yew topiary can be grown in pots and at various points in a border, to dramatic effect.
How to plant Taxus baccata
Prepare the soil by digging it over and incorporating well-rotted manure or garden compost. Yew trees are available as potted or bare-root plants. Bare-root plants are cheaper to buy, especially when planting a hedge.
Plant in autumn or spring, spacing hedging plants 60cm apart. Firm gently around the rootball and water well. Water during dry spells in the first year, until established.
Yew does well in containers and makes an ideal shrub for a formal display such as on either side of a front door. Additional watering is necessary in pots as the roots have much less soil to search for moisture.
Caring for Taxus baccata
Yew trees need very little care once established. As long as they're growing on a well-drained soil they will thrive without any interference from you. However hedges will need pruning and topiary specimens will need more regular intervention to maintain a desired shape.
How to prune a yew hedge
After planting and in the first couple of years, encourage bushy growth by shortening the side branches only. Avoid cutting the growing tips (upwards growth) as this will result in a loss of vigour and cause your yew to grow very slowly for at least a couple of years.
Once your yew hedge has reached the desired height, you can start cutting the growing tips. From this point you can simply trim, using shears or a hedge trimmer. Avoid cutting back by too much as it will take a couple of years to grow back. Prune from late-spring to summer, making your last cut in September, to prevent cutting into old wood that could cause brown patches. Taper the hedge slightly to ensure light reaches the bottom of the plants.
Growing yew: problem-solving
Root rot can be fatal to yews and is caused by the fungal disease Phytopthera. The fungus attacks the roots and stops them from absorbing water, which leads to a browning of the leaves. This is most common in autumn and winter, when the soil is wetter. Always plant yew in well-drained soil to prevent this from taking hold. If you do spot leaf browning, don't despair, as long as there are green shoots on the plants it's not dead yet. Try to improve drainage by digging around the hedge, or move young yew plants to a better site.
Advice on buying yew
- Make sure you have the best conditions for growing yew before you buy plants. If you have a moist soil then consider alternatives
- Choose from potted or bare-root plants, and single- or multi-stemmed trees
- Specialist tree nurseries will have a wider range of tree sizes and shapes to choose from
Where to buy yew
Varieties of yew to grow
Taxus baccata 'Summergold' – golden yellow foliage and a compact, neat habit. Ideal for rockeries. Height x Spread: 1.5m x 1.5m
Taxus baccata 'David' – dwarf, columnar habit with gold-edged green leaves. Male variety – does not produce berries. H x S: 4m x 1.5m
Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata Robusta' - Irish yew has a columnar growing habit and leaves that grow all around the stem, rather than in rows, as with Taxus baccata. It will remain narrow and grow slowly. H x S: 12m x 4m