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Yews are highly underused in the garden

(John Zvirovski / The Sun) A pyramidal yew is seen Wednesday in a Jamestown landscape.

By John Zvirovski, Sun Garden Editor

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Thanksgiving has come to pass and the time has quickly turned toward the Christmas season. Not that we haven’t seen a great deal of the decorations being hung up, but now it is actually safe to turn the lights on and begin the new season.

With the holidays come the old tradition of putting up a Christmas tree. Typically we go out to a tree lot and select a spruce, fir or pine to place within our home to be decorated and enjoyed, but in earlier times this was not always the case. One tree that rarely gets mentioned during the holidays is the yew.

Germany saw some of the earliest periods where Christmas trees were used. Oftentimes these were of the pine or spruce selection, but when Queen Charlotte moved to England and married King George III, she also brought along the first Christmas tree in England. This first tree happened to be an upright selection of the yew in 1800.

Yews are an evergreen shrub or tree that has soft, flat needles of deep green. These are rarely used for Christmas trees today as they are difficult to find in the market and grow slowly, but in the early years boughs were used like holly branches for decorations and centerpieces.

Unlike many evergreens growing in our area, the yew is a little more difficult to find. There are many different selections that can be grown in our area, and I think their promotion in the gardens and landscape should be encouraged. They are one of the few evergreens that do well in shady or semi-shady areas and they are not particular on the soil types in which they grow. They do not tolerate growing in wet conditions, however, many are drought tolerant and work well in the sun.

The scientific name for this species is “taxus.” It is one of the few plants that connect us to early history as it has grown in nature for thousands of years. It is a solid plant that has the ability to regenerate new growth even after potions died off, making its lifespan quite extensive.

In 1966, an anti-cancer-causing agent was found in the oil of the wood called taxol. It is used in treatments to fight breast and ovarian cancer. As cancer rates have risen, the demand for treatment has also increased resulting in the quick destruction of many of the ancient and old yew stands. In some areas of the world, they are nearly non-existent and attempts to re-establish their habitats have not been met with much success.

With many of the evergreens in our area contracting needle diseases and succumbing to them, the yew is a good selection to add to your landscape for that evergreen flair. The taxus species are similar to the arborvitae varieties in the fact that they tend to be slow growers, so one must be patient for a plant to grow into maturity. One of the benefits of this trait is that they also tend to need very little trimming.

Unlike arborvitaes, yews develop their growth in the spring season similar to that of the spruce and pines. Their new growth is a bright lime green color with a ferny texture and slowly elongates to its annual extent within about six weeks. As this growth ages its color transforms to a deep green which becomes even more enhanced during the winter. They also produce red berries called “drupes” that birds enjoy eating during the fall and winter months. Although all parts of the plant are toxic, many birds and animals are immune to their effects.

For planting along the foundation of the house or close to the borders of gardens, try the various selections of spreading yews such as the “densiformis,” “Tauntonii” and dark-green cultivars. They all grow about 4 to 5 feet wide with a similar width.

‘Hicksii’ is a nice columnar selection that is great for small areas or in creating a privacy hedge. They grow to about 12 feet in height and nearly 6 feet in width. Unlike the spreading varieties, this one grows a little more rapidly.

“Capitata” is a nice pyramidal variety that can reach anywhere from 10 to 25 feet in height and up to 15 feet wide when fully mature. This selection takes very well to heavy pruning to create a dense structure and to keep its height under control. This selection is also used well for creating outdoor living topiaries.

Next spring, if you are looking for an evergreen selection for the yard or garden, this should be on the top of your list of items to try. Not only are they tough plants, but they also maintain a good size without becoming overgrown. Do some further research during the winter months to see what selections might work best for your situation. Seeing a few more of these plants in the landscape would definitely help diversify our flora in the community. I consider yews as a hidden treasure in our pallet of plant selections.