Thursday, January 8, 2009

Good Yews

By Shane VanOosterhout

The mighty yew (Family:
Taxacaea; Genus Taxus) is a woody plant I used to disdain. How ridiculous of me. What I understand now is that I was judging the yew not on its own merits but instead because it is often used poorly in the home landscape.

I should clarify. The yew is used extensively in the home landscape because it possesses remarkable characteristics, mainly that it is nearly indestructible (tolerates abusive pruning) and is evergreen even in part sun to part shade.

Professional nursery growers love the yew because it propagates easily from cuttings. Landscapers love the yew because it is a budget-friendly shrub and provides instant green on the new, barren home site. In effect, it is probably the utilitarian nature of the yew that has contributed to unintended ugliness in our country.

Yews can grow 30-60 feet and spread 15-25 feet. There is a famous 300-year-old hedge on Bathurst Estate in Cirencester, Gloucestershire, England that is 40 feet tall that requires the aid of cherry pickers and two days' work to keep its shapely figure.

As an ornamental the yew has quite literally defined the gardens of the upper classes for centuries. Descriptions of lovelorn women scampering breathlessly through tall shrubbery is a veritable staple of British Empire narrative.

In the United Kingdom the yew is highly romanticized, its history full of lore, long-associated with mysticism, Druid culture and fertility rituals. The heartwood was used for crafting the longbow, a formidably powerful weapon used for defense and hunting.

In most American landscapes yews are planted on small lots where homeowners eventually begin to fear them or hate them as is evidently plain in their need to attack them with saws or throw bicycles at them.

Pruned or not, the yew is at its most stately and beguiling when allowed to develop some stature. Larger yews have elegance; they are regal and bespeak their ancient story. The needles are superior in the garden, their glossy foliage dark and powerful, providing essential texture, form and color.

The best looking yews I spot in neighborhoods are those that were planted with the intent of "disguising" the air condition units or the electric box. They are generally ignored which means they are given permission to grow. After 10-15 years these yews become handsome specimens
even if they do tend to look a bit goofy stuck out on the corner of the lot with no companions to keep them company.

Nervous types get antsy when it comes to the toxicity of the yew, *banning them from playgrounds or anywhere children might play. Sources are known to erroneously report that the fruit (aril) is poisonous. The author(s) of an article on state of the yew: "Poisonous Parts---Leaves, seed and fruit" but in fact the poison taxane resides in the seed not the flesh of the fruit. (A reminder to carefully check your sources when researching online).

As a maturing gardener I've come to love the yew in a way I never thought I would. Plants have little say in where they end up in the landscape and I suppose it is not always fair to blame them for looking ruinous. I've always said that if plants could talk we would not have to dig them up and relocate them 20-30 times before finding them a proper home.

If you have a spot in your landscape to plant just one single yew where it can gain some real size I highly recommend doing so. Resist shaping it. Let it be. In time you will discover why our cousins across the pond hold the beautiful, practical yew in such high esteem.

*41 percent of all poisonings reported occur in the home kitchen, 21 percent in the bathroom and 12 percent in the bedroom, leaving 26 percent for other places, according to Cincinnati Children's Hospital. Statistically. the garden is not such a dangerous place for children.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting article. That castle with the yew hedge is fascinating and it takes a cherry picker to groom it, well seems like ton of work.

Ilona said...

I very much enjoyed this post. I've always liked the yew, in all its variations, but have to concur that its overuse contributes to lazy American landscapes throughout our neighborhoods. When I was young that could have been said of the privet hedge, but now yews and arborvitaes rule every foundation planting in suburbia.