What Is a Plum Yew?

Lumara Lee

The plum yew is a coniferous evergreen indigenous to China, Korea, and Japan. In its natural habitat, it is an understory plant that thrives in moist, humus-rich soil and has a tendency to form thickets. Also known as a spreading Japanese plum, the plum yew is either be a small tree or a shrub, depending on the variety.

Woman with a flower
Woman with a flower

One of the most popular types of plum yew is the cephalotaxus harringtonia. It was named after the Earl of Harrington, the first person to grow the plum yew in a garden in Europe. The plum yew was first brought to the United States by Ernest Henry Wilson, a horticulturist who made frequent trips to Asia to collect plants in the early twentieth century.

This plant grows slowly, and it can take as long as 10 years for it to reach a height of 4 feet (1.2 meters). People who want to add this plant to their garden often choose to purchase mature specimens due to the long growing period. The most common cultivars reach a height of 5 to 10 feet (1.5 to 3 meters), with an equal or greater spread at maturity. Some larger specimens have been known to grow as tall as 30 feet (9 meters) and have a 20-foot (6-meter) spread.

The plum yew is ornamental, and can provide a striking green backdrop for other plants in a garden. Its leaves are thin needles approximately 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) long. Two rows of needles grow at a 45-degree angle to one another along each branch, forming a "V" shape.

Depending on the variety, these lush evergreens can thrive under various conditions ranging from full sun to full shade. In colder climates the plant needs more sun, but in tropical regions it does better in shade. It tolerates heat better than a true yew, making it a good specimen plant for southern landscapes. This is also an excellent plant to grow in a yard frequented by deer because it acts as a deer repellant.

The plum yew produces fruits that are approximately 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) long and resemble green olives or small plums. They can be eaten either cooked or raw, and taste a bit like a plum with a hint of pine. Grown as a garden plant in the United States, its use as an edible fruit there is rare, but the Japanese have reportedly grown it for food. The plum yew has no known medicinal properties.

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