Yew Can Stop the Deer
Before deer became such a big problem in New Jersey there was a staple plant used in almost every landscape in the garden state. Taxus (Yew)! Unfortunately this seems to be a delicacy for our four-legged friends. Interesting since Yews are among the most toxic of plant materials. Taxus has proved to be a versatile plant lending itself to most soil types, lighting conditions, topiary work and overall durability. In particular, though is lighting conditions. While there are other genera that tolerate the shade, Sciadopitys (Umbrella Pine), Chamaecyparis (Falsecypress), and Tsuga (Hemlock), few embrace it offering both an academic and practical solution as Taxus has. However, there is another genus that has long been overlooked that can not only mimic the texture of Taxus, but afford itself in many of the same applications as the aforementioned genus.
Cephalotaxus (Plum Yew) is a genus comprising eleven species. Native to Japan, fossil evidence has sited it further to the Northern Hemisphere. Plum Yews were introduced into this country in 1848, but we have Phillip Franz von Siebold to thank who first sent specimens to Europe from Japan in 1829 (Tripp 1995). Recent popularity has grown, I suspect, because of the adaptability of the genus. Tolerant to alkaline, clay, sand, acidic and loamy soils, Cephalotaxus also performs admirably in sun or shade. However, the plants recent notoriety is attributed to the fact that it’s a coniferous evergreen that handles the shade quite well and is deer resistant.
Plum Yews do not have an aggressive root structure, are known for their drought tolerance once established and are not affected by many pest problems. Cephalotaxus have a softness about them, having flat needlelike leaves that are blunt at the tips. More heat tolerant than true yews and most juniper, Plum Yews can also take heavy pruning. Although heavy pruning should be unnecessary, as Cephalotaxus is not known for its rapid growth. The common name Plum Yew is termed for the plum-like fruit, actually a naked seed, which is fleshy and is olive to reddish brown. These olive-like fruits are a popular food in Japan.
Cephalotaxus harringtonia (Japanese Plum Yew, Cow’s Tail Pine) are the more “commonly” found of the eleven species. Named for the Earl of Harrington, one of the species’ first European fanciers (Tripp 1995) harringtonia offers several notable cultivars. ‘Prostrata’ is among my favorites for no other reason than it closely resembles that of Taxus baccata ‘Repandens’ (spreading English Yew). An impressive dark green carpet that the deer simply won’t let us plant. ’Prostrata’ is a low mounding evergreen with arching pendulous branches. It too has dark green leaves and can be used effectively as a deer resistant ground cover. Stunning as a monosweep around a deciduous tree, ‘Prostrata’ has a nostalgic feel for the spreading English Yews of years past. The new growth is a pale lime green that hardens to a glossy dark green. Comfortably this cultivar sits two to four feet tall and wide. Slightly larger in appearance is another great cultivar ‘Duke Gardens’. With more of a rounded outline ‘Duke Gardens’ finishes nicely at four to five feet tall and wide. Also projecting dark green foliage, this one has upswept arching branches and a slight aromatic fragrance. Finally, a vertical accent to your garden is ‘Fastigiata’. Capable of growing ten feet all, slowly remember, this is an outstanding columnar candidate that can hide your air conditioner units or act as a really cool container plant. With black-green markings, ‘Fastigiata’ has almost weeping new growth held stiffly on an upward appearance. I saw some stunning examples of this cultivar last winter visiting Napa Valley. The hotel we stayed in used them effectively around their pool, in containers, to help frame their Mediterranean feel.
Finally, aside from their versatility and adaptability, Cephalotaxus are being used medicinally. Anticancer alkaloids such as Cephalotaxine and harringtonine are compounds being extracted. With all that has been said about this fabulous genus, Michael Dirr (Professor and Plant demigod of our time) says it best. “Potential has not even been tapped; a superb and shade tolerant aristocrat evergreen for groupings, masses and accents; slow growing which frightens those who design with a juniper mentality, but the rewards over time are abundant.”