Yews (Taxus) trees and shrubs types, planting and care

Yews (Taxus) trees and shrubs types, planting and care

Splendid Evergreens for Many Landscape Uses

Taxus (Tax’us) are beautiful evergreen trees and shrubs that are natives of North America, Europe and Asia. They belong to the Yew family, Taxaceae. The name is an old Latin one for Taxus baccata, the European Yew.

The leaves are small and, in most cases, are dark green on wild trees, but they are variable in color on cultivated forms. Male and female flowers are usually produced on different trees in early spring. The male flowers are yellow and produced in small catkins; the female flowers are greenish, very small, and difficult to find. The fruit is a small, hard, dark green or brownish seed surrounded, except at the apex, by a fleshy envelope that is red and juicy when ripe.

Shoots, leaves and seeds contain poisonous properties, and have proved fatal to both human beings and cattle. This is especially true of the English Yew. The flesh surrounding the seeds, however, is not toxic, and it is interesting to note that deer eat the foliage of Taxus cuspidata with relish and without apparent harm.

It is generally understood that shoots and leaves are in their most dangerous state when partly withered.

Valuable for Landscaping. Yews are among the finest evergreens for landscaping uses. In addition to the wild kinds, there are numerous garden varieties and hybrids which show great variation in height, habit of growth and other important characteristics and this makes it possible for the planter to select from among them those that suit his purposes best.

Yews, allowed to grow without clipping or shearing, develop into magnificent specimen plants, but they stand pruning well and are among the finest of all evergreens for planting as formal hedges and for topiary work. (See Topiary Work.) The prostrate and spreading kinds are effective ground covers.

Yews may be transplanted without undue difficulty even when quite large. Should they outgrow their allotted space, they may be pruned back severely and will “break” (put forth new shoots) even from thick old branches that have been cut back. In this respect they differ from many other evergreens.

Yews Thrive in Most Soils. Very fine old trees are often found growing naturally on limestone soils, but they also grow on sandy loam, heavy loam and on peat. They do not succeed where the subsoil is waterlogged, and even old trees may be killed by the sudden raising of the natural water level, as is brought about by flooding or by the silting up of ditches or open drains, obstructions in drainpipes or by grading operations.

Mulching the soil surface with old, rotted manure, rich compost, leaf mold or other suitable organic material is of great benefit. An application of a complete fertilizer each spring is beneficial.

When to Plant Yew Trees. When the trees are moved with a mass of soil attached to the roots, transplanting may be carried out in early autumn or early spring or, in mild climates, in winter; however, when there is considerable root disturbance, September and April are the best months for the work. Whether specimen or hedge plants are planted, the ground should be prepared beforehand and, if there is any danger of waterlogging, arrangements must be made for draining the ground. If, when the trees are received, the roots appear to be dry, soak them with water before planting, and give them a good watering as soon as the work is completed. If the weather is hot and dry the trees should be shaded from hot sun for a week or two, and sprayed twice a day with water. The removal of the ends of some of the branches will assist in re-establishing the trees by lessening the strain on the roots.

Should the leaves fall, there need be no cause for alarm; it is one of Nature’s means of assisting recovery. If, however, the leaves shrivel or turn brown and remain on the branches, root action is not proceeding in a satisfactory way. In such a case, cut the branches back, spray the trees several times a day, and shade from sun until new shoots appear. Severe pruning, when required by old trees, should be done in March or April.

Pruning. Yews required for trees must be carefully pruned from early life; it is important that the growth of the lower branches should not interfere with the leading shoots. Those Yews which have a tendency to produce several shoots from the base are the best to select for hedges or for topiary work. Pruning may be done at any time from spring to fall.

Hedges and clipped specimens should be sheared in spring, just before new growth begins, and again about midsummer if necessary.

Raising Yew Trees from Seeds. Yew trees can be raised by sowing seeds as soon as ripe in a frame, or out of doors in spring. Seeds to be sown out of doors may be kept in sand from the time of collection to sowing. When quantities of Yew seeds are required, they should be collected as soon as the flesh of the fruit begins to turn red, for the ripe fruits are eagerly eaten by birds. The seeds can be freed from the flesh by washing.

Taking Cuttings. Cuttings of all kinds of Yew can also be rooted by placing them in a bed of sand, or sand and peat moss, in a cold frame in July or August and leaving them there all winter, or by inserting them in a greenhouse propagating bench in October or November.

This is one of the methods adopted for increasing varieties which cannot be reared true from seed. Grafting is also practiced on stocks of common types previously established in pots. This work must be carried out in a warm greenhouse in spring. Yew can also be increased by layering and air layering.

The Japanese Yew. In most parts of North America the Japanese Yew, Taxus cuspidata, and its varieties and hybrids are the most valuable kinds.

When Taxus cuspidata is raised from seeds it develops into symmetrical, broad-conical, upright-growing specimens, each with a well-defined central trunk or leader. Such plants are generally offered for sale by nurseries under the name T. cuspidata capitata. If plants are propagated by means of cuttings taken from side branches of these capitate specimens, they do not develop into tall, conical plants with well-defined central leaders, but, instead, form broad-spreading specimens without any definite central trunk or leader. Such plants are sold by nurseries as Taxus cuspidata. Botanically, both types are Taxus cuspidata; they are precisely the same species; the difference in appearance is due only to the method of propagation employed.

The Japanese Yew is hardier than the English Yew and grows more quickly. It withstands the winters of New England and under the most favorable conditions will develop into a tree 50 ft. tall but in cultivation is usually considerably smaller than this. It is a native of Japan, Korea and Manchuria.

Among the best-defined varieties of the Japanese Yew are T. cuspidata aurea, with leaves slightly variegated with yellow (this variety is likely to appear brownish and unattractive in winter); T. cuspidata aurescens, a low-growing variety in which the young leaves are bright yellow (this variety is more tender than most; it requires a sheltered location); T. cuspidata densa, a very compact, slow-growing variety with deep green foliage; and T. cuspidata fastigiata, a dwarf, erect columnar kind.

T. cuspidata nana, a dark green, dense, bushy form of moderately fast growth, is one of the best evergreens for low hedges, foundation plantings and similar uses. This is the plant frequently offered in nurseries as T. cuspidata brevifolia and T. brevifolia; it should not be confused with the T. brevifolia of botanists, which is a native of the Pacific Northwest and is much more tender.

Other well-defined varieties include T. cuspidata nigra, with very dark green foliage; T. cuspidata ovata, a kind with leaves that are broader than normal; T. cuspidata pyramidalis, a variety of distinct pyramidal growth habit; T. cuspidata Thayerae, a wide-spreading variety with more or less horizontal branches with foliage of a type that gives them a somewhat feathery appearance.

The Media Hybrids. Between the Japanese Yew, T. cuspidata, and the English Yew, T. baccata, a series of very valuable hybrids have been raised. These are classed together under the group name of Taxus media. They are somewhat less hardy than the Japanese Yew but they may be depended upon as far north as Massachusetts and perhaps further north. They include a most interesting selection of plant forms and habits.

Among the best of these hybrids are T. media Andersonii, an erect, freely branching variety; T. media Brownii, erect and conical and growing to an ultimate height of about 8 ft.; T. media Hatfieldii, a shrubby, conical variety with spreading branches; T. media Hicksii, a dark green, bushy kind with many very erect branches; T. media Kelseyi, a dense, upright plant that is said to fruit heavily; T. media pyramidalis, erect and of loose-branching habit; T. media Wardii, an erect, compact variety; T. media Wellesleyi, a broad, erect-growing variety.

The English Yew. This magnificent evergreen, Taxus baccata, is generally less reliable and less useful in most parts of the United States than it is in Europe. It is well adapted for growing in the Pacific Northwest. In the East it is hardy as far north as southern New York and parts of New England, but it is generally not so satisfactory for those areas as the Japanese Yew and the media hybrids between the Japanese Yew and the English Yew. Some varieties of the English Yew, notably the low T. baccata repandens, are much hardier than the typical form of T. baccata. The English Yew grows more slowly than the Japanese Yew and the hybrid kinds.

Taxus baccata is a densely branched tree when growing in the open; when growing closely together, the trees may become branchless for a considerable height, and then have a head of moderate size. Under favorable conditions the English Yew grows 30-60 feet high with a trunk 9-20 ft. in girth. Very large and old trees are often found in churchyards in Great Britain; the Yew has been associated with churches and churchyards for hundreds of years. The spirally arranged, narrow leaves are dark green, 1/2-1 1/4 in. long, and each of the solitary hard seeds is enclosed in a red fleshy aril or cup.

There are many well-marked varieties which differ from the type in habit, size and color of leaves, and in one instance in the color of the aril of the fruit.

Trees 1,000 Years Old. It is suggested that some of the oldest trees of Taxus baccata in the British Isles exceed the age of 1,000 years, and this may well be correct. Some of these trees are mere shells bearing living branches, and have probably remained in much the same state for many generations.

The English Yew has the peculiarity of producing young erect stems from near its base; growing close to the trunk, they sometimes become enclosed by wood of the old tree. In these cases a transverse section cut from a trunk may show several enclosed stems. It is possible that some old trees may even have been rejuvenated by one of these secondary stems, and that the original trunk has disappeared.

Varieties of English Yew. There are numerous varieties of the English Yew. One of the most useful and hardiest is T. baccata repandens, which is of neatly prostrate habit with arching, lax branches and bluish-green leaves.

T. baccata Dovastonii is a very distinct and handsome variety with horizontal branches and pendent branchlets; the leaves are dark green and larger than those of the type. It is sometimes called the Westfelton Yew.

T. baccata lutea (fructu-luteo) is exactly like the common English Yew and grows as large, but the fleshy covering of the seed is golden instead of the familiar red. T. baccata gracilis pendula is a very graceful Yew with weeping side branchlets.

The varieties epacrioides and ericoides are of low, compact habit, with small leaves, and are suitable for planting in the rock garden. T. baccata expansa is a wide-spreading kind of low stature suitable for covering banks. T. baccata Foxii is another dwarf variety suitable for the rock garden.

Golden-leaved Yews. A very attractive variety of T. baccata is named adpressa. It is of compact, bushy habit, growing 10-12 ft. high, with short, dark green leaves, 1/4-1/2 in. long. There are several subvarieties of it, including adpressa aurea, a very handsome shrub with golden leaves; and argentea, with white and green leaves, a less attractive shrub than aurea.

Other varieties of the English Yew with golden leaves are T. baccata aurea, Barronii, Dovastonii aureo-variegata, elegantissima and semperaurea. T. baccata Barronii is of specially good color, and Dovastonii aureo-variegata and elegantissima quickly grow into large bushes.

The Irish Yew. T. baccata stricta (fastigiata), is well known by reason of its stiff and erect habit. It is useful for planting as formal avenues and is much used in churchyards in Great Britain. There are several varieties with colored leaves—for example, fastigiata aurea, the Golden Irish Yew; fastigiata grandis and Standishii, also with golden leaves, and argentea, a less useful form with silver-variegated leaves. The Irish Yew is sometimes called the Florence Court Yew, because the two original specimens were found near Florence Court in Ireland.

The Ground Hemlock or Canadian Yew. T. canadensis, is a native of eastern North America as far north as Newfoundland. It attains a maximum height of about 6 ft. but is usually lower and forms a more or less straggling or nearly prostrate shrub. Its foliage does not possess the rich, dark green coloring of other Yews but tends to be yellowish; for these reasons it is less useful as a garden plant. Nevertheless the Ground Hemlock can be used to good effect as a ground covering under trees and in woodlands where sheltered conditions can be provided. It is not suitable for planting in exposed wind-swept locations. It is an especially good plant for setting beneath evergreens.

Other Yews. The Western Yew is native from Montana to California and British Columbia. This is the true Taxus brevifolia and must be clearly distinguished from the plant commonly sold in nurseries as T. brevifolia, which is really T. cuspidata nana. In its native home the Western Yew makes a tree 45 ft. or more tall but it is not a common plant in cultivation. The Chinese Yew is Taxus chinensis, a kind which, as its name suggests, is a native of China. It is hardy in the North but is not common. In its native home it forms a tree about 50 ft. tall.

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