Left untrimmed, the Japanese yew will grow to over 20 ft in height like this old timer at Cincinnati's Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum.
Japanese yew and its hybrids are more typically trimmed and sheared to serve as specimans, hedges and in foundation plantings.
Japanese yew is a shrub or small tree that can get 30-50 ft (10-15 m) tall and up to 25 ft (8 m) wide. Typical specimens tend toward a broad columnar habit. The leaves are linear, a little less than an inch (2.5 cm) long, and have spiny tips. They are arranged in two upright files, forming a V along the branches. The leaves are dark green on top and yellow-green beneath, often turning reddish in winter. The yews are dioecious, meaning it takes two to tango. Female Japanese yews produce juicy red berrylike fruits called arils, each enclosing a single seed. The fruits are a little less than an half inch (12.5 mm) across.
Japanese yew has been crossed with English yew (Taxus baccata) to produce many cultivars that have become important landscaping shrubs. Taxus x media is the name given to the hybrid species which is normally a small, rounded tree to 20 ft (6 m) tall. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of cultivar names listed under the hybrid species and under Taxus cuspidata as well. The entire cultivar taxonomy is very confused, and no doubt many cultivar names are incorrectly placed, and some are even listed under both species. The following cultivars are believed to be selections from T. cuspidata: 'Capitata' is a tall pyramid of a tree to 40 ft (12 m) in height. 'Densa' is a low growing female shrub to 4 ft (1.2 m) in height. 'Columnaris' grows erect and tall with a cylindrical shape. 'Depressa' grows along the ground without a central leader. 'Minima' get only 18 in (45 cm) high.
Selections presumed to be from the hybrid species include 'Densiformis' which is a dense bush 3-4 ft (1-1.2 m) tall and 4-6 ft (1.2-2 m) wide; 'Everlow' which is a spreading ground hugger to 18 in (45 cm) tall and 5 ft (1.5 m) wide; 'Nigra' which has very dark green leaves and gets 4-5 ft (1.2-1.5 m) tall and wide; and 'Wardii' which is flat topped and very wide spreading to 20 ft (6 m) across and only 6 ft (2 m) high. Horticulturalists are constantly introducing new cultivars of Taxus x media for yew to enjoy.
Location Taxus cuspidata occurs naturally in Manchuria, Korea and Japan, where it grows in mixed forests. Taxus baccata is native to much of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The hybrid species, Taxus x media, was created in the U.S. around 1900.
Culture Light: Japanese yew grows well in deep shade or full sun. Moisture: Any well drained soil, acidic to alkaline is suitable for this easy-to-please evergreen. The yews can tolerate quite dry soils and they require that the soil be sharply drained. Even brief periods of wet soil can be harmful to a Japanese yew. Hardiness: USDA Zones 5-7. Japanese yew and the hybrid species, T. x media, do not do well in hot climates. Propagation: Plant seeds as soon as they ripen and find something to do for a couple years as they can take at least that long to germinate. Semi-ripe cuttings taken in late summer can be rooted, and this is how most cultivars are propagated. If you want your yew to have an upright central leader, the cuttings should be taken from upright shoots. Grafting is sometimes used to propagate cultivars.
Japanese yew does not grow well in hot climates but can comfortably handle sub-freezing temperatures.
Japanese yew foliage
Japanese yew and its hybrids and cultivars typically are grown as specimen plants or used in hedges or as foundation plants. They are very tolerant of shade and thus find many uses in the home landscape. Yews can tolerate severe pruning to maintain a hedge. Because of this they are yewsful (sorry) in topiary, too. The prostrate cultivars make good ground covers, even in dry shade. Japanese yew is tolerant of salt spray and coastal conditions as well as urban pollution and drought. Unfortunately, white-tailed deer esteem yew foliage to the point that they sometimes kill the plants. In its native range, the wood of Japanese yew is used for furniture and carved art.
The soft, light green foliage of the yews in summer and the scarlet arils in autumn make the Japanese yew one of the finest of all evergreen ornamental shrubs, all year long. See Floridata's profile of the Florida yew (Taxus floridana) for a discussion about taxol, the cancer fighting drug that was first identified in yews, and is now synthesized, thanks to your taxus at work. (I have no shame.)
WARNING The fleshy red covering of the fruit is edible, but the foliage of yews is toxic to humans if ingested.