What is a Yew Shrub?

N. Phipps

The yew shrub is one of the most popular slow-growing evergreens placed in the home landscape. All yew shrubs are needle-bearing with striking dense green foliage. Most of these shrubs can also be grown in a number of locations throughout Zones 4-7, and they are generally tolerant of both sun and shade. In fact, the majority of yew shrubs are native to parts of Asia, Europe, and North Africa, making them quite versatile.

Deer will both eat and trample the yew shrub.
Deer will both eat and trample the yew shrub.

While there are several kinds of yew shrubs grown, true yew varieties belong to the Taxus genus. The Japanese yew (T. cuspidata) and English yew (T. baccata) are the most notable species. Japanese yew is more hardy and adaptable than the English variety and can endure colder weather conditions. Due to its versatility, a yew shrub can perform many uses in the landscape setting.

Sizes and shapes between the various species usually determine its purpose and placement in the landscape. There are yew varieties that grow tall and upright, making excellent choices for privacy hedges. There are also yew shrubs that are low-lying with a spreading nature, and those that are short and upright. These are the types that are more suitable near the home, making ideal selections as foundation plants.

The yew shrub is surrounded with lore. For instance, it is thought to have a reputation for eternal life. Much of this is due to the unique growth habit found in some species. Branches grow down into the ground, forming new stems and eventually become separate but linked entities. Female yew shrubs produce attractive red berries in winter as well. However, this usually requires the nearby presence of a male shrub.

Certainly not lore is the fact that all yew shrubs are considered toxic. With the exception of the fleshy parts of the red berry, both the foliage and seed within the fruit, or berry, is poisonous. The needles and twigs are even poisonous to livestock. Not all animals avoid the yew shrub, however. Deer will both eat and trample the shrubs.

Rabbits will also nibble on yew shrubs on occasion. Squirrels and many bird species, such as bluejays and cedar waxwings, feast on the plant’s berries. A few insect pests may cause trouble as well. For instance, mealybugs and root weevils are the most prevalent insects affecting yew shrubs in the landscape.

For the most part, however, the yew shrub is free from serious diseases. It is susceptible to twig blight in some areas. Since yew shrubs grow rather slowly, they are ideal for shaping and trimming. Overgrown or diseased plants can easily be cut back without any harm to the shrubs themselves.

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