If you’re looking for a way to add a point of interest to your garden, and you want one that will be equally dramatic all year round, an evergreen tree might be the perfect choice. Because they don’t shed their foliage in winter these species will always offer something to look at, and they are also often quite hardy and suitable for colder climates. One of the most interesting evergreens is the yew family.
Yew trees grow naturally across North America, Europe and Asia; there’s a lot of debate about how many species there actually are, with some botanists arguing for as many as 25 while others insist there is only one. There are definitely regional variations though, as well as many hybrids. The popular garden variety, Taxus media “Hicksii”, is a hybrid of the European yew Taxus baccata and the Japanese Taxus cuspidata. The result is an extremely attractive tree that’s suitable for a wide range of settings.
Hicksii is a medium-sized yew that reaches a mature height of between twelve and 20 feet, and grows out to between eight and twelve feet wide. It’s notable for its two-ranked foliage, with the upper layer being a glossy dark green and the lower part being lighter. This gives it an interesting appearance that’s highlighted in late summer and early fall when the fruit appears. Yew is technically a conifer but the cones of the female trees are highly modified. Each one develops into a single seed wrapped in a fleshy red coating, creating a berry-like fruit. These attract many species of bird which eat the flesh and swallow the seeds, which then pass through their bodies to be scattered far and wide. Male trees do not produce fruit, although occasionally a yew can show both male and female characteristics.
Taxus media isn’t a difficult tree to grow as long as you can find the right location for it. It does well in USDA plant hardiness zones 4 to 7; extreme temperatures don’t suit it, but it will thrive across most of the continental USA with the exception of the most northern areas and the hot South. It prefers soil with close to neutral pH and doesn’t like waterlogged ground or heavy clays. It is very tolerant of sunlight though. Usually planted in full sun to part shade, it can also grow without problems in full shade.
There’s something else it can tolerate too – pruning. Generally there’s no need to prune this tree, but if desired it can be very heavily modified and cut into almost any shape you want. This makes it an ideal choice for hedges; it’s known for producing a very dense hedge that will give you excellent privacy and act as a good windbreak. A mature one can even absorb a lot of sound, helping to make your garden a more peaceful place. Ornamental shapes are also possible; the only real limit is your imagination.
In general Hicksii is an easy plant to take care of. Extreme temperatures, especially winter winds, can occasionally turn some of the foliage brown. Sudden cold snaps may also kill off some twigs. If unusually cold weather is expected consider wrapping smaller specimens with burlap until it passes. There are few serious insect or disease problems though. One pest to be aware of is deer, which will happily eat yew foliage.
One thing to be aware of is that deer are about the only animals that can eat yew foliage. Every part of the tree, except the fleshy part of the fruit, contains highly toxic alkaloids called taxanes. Deer are immune to these but humans aren’t. It should be noted that while birds can eat the fruit safely, the human stomach is capable of breaking down the coating on the seeds – which are toxic. If you have small children the yew might not be an ideal choice unless you can keep them away from it; the fruit are tempting, but can be fatal.
The yew is a tree that’s deeply embedded in mythology, especially the old Norse and British tales. It’s also an incredibly long-lived tree. One specimen in England, the Fortingall Yew, is believed to be at least 2,000 years old and possibly much more than that. Local legend says that Pontius Pilate was born in its shade, or alternatively that he slept under it when he was an officer in Britain before his fateful posting to Jerusalem. When you plant a yew you are establishing something that could still be thriving on that spot when today’s generation are not just gone but long forgotten. In England ancient yews are frequently found in old village churchyards, but many of them may be remains of Druid groves that stood on the spot centuries before Christianity came to the island and drove the old religion underground. The yew is also forever associated with the deadly English longbows that cut down France’s armored nobility at Crecy, Poitiers and finally Agincourt. Your new tree isn’t just a piece of greenery; it’s a piece of history.