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The Mighty Yew Tree and the Hick’s Yew

The yew treeTaxus baccata, resonates with myths.

We will first look take a glance at the yew in general.

After, we will move on to explore the Hick’s Yew (Taxus x media “Hicksii”). This evergreen shrub is perfect for tall hedges. It’s a first-rate landscape shrub ideal for shielding your property from prying eyes.

Background On The Yew

hick's yew

This evergreen conifer grows natively in Europe and North Africa.

From the family Taxaceae, the yew is known scientifically as Taxus baccata.

What Does The Yew Look Like?

  • General Overview: These staggering trees can grow up to 20m high when mature. They can endure for 400-600 years. There are some specimens in the UK believed to date back to the 10th century. Bark is a deep browny red color undercut with peeling and tones of purple
  • Flowers: Dioecious, male and female yew flowers grow on separate trees. You will spot them in March or April. The male flowers are whitish and shaped like a globe. Female flowers resemble scaly buds.  They are green but turn brown with age
  • Leaves: The small straight needles have pointed tips. They are dark green above and lighter underneath. Two rows of them grow on each side of the twig
  • Fruits: Most conifers bear their seeds in a cone. The yew is different. Seeds are instead enclosed in an aril. This is a fleshy, red appendage like a berry. There are highly toxic alkaloids in the seeds. The aril itself is not poisonous. Some enterprising birds have learned how to navigate the toxins and access the nutritious embryo inside

Where To Find Yew

yew tree

Yew is extremely common in southern England and throughout continental Europe. It is also native to parts of North Africa.

Yew regularly forms part of the understory of beech woodland.

It’s prized as a hedging plant and is routinely to be seen in the grounds of churches.

Is The Yew Useful For Wildlife?

In a word, yes.

Dense yew hedges offer birds shelter and protection. It’s also a great place for them to nest.

The firecrest and the goldcrest are the smallest birds in the UK. They make their nests in the yew understorey of woodland.

goldcrest yew tree

Birds and other small mammals like dormice and squirrels feast on the fruit of the yew tree.

Caterpillars munch on the leaves.

All round, the yew is prized for many reasons including the bounty it provides for other creatures.

Symbolism and Myths

There is a lengthy history of yew trees being planted in churchyards. No less than 500 churches in England have yews that are older than the building itself. The reasons for this are uncertain. One theory suggests that they were planted by the graves of plague victims to purify the corpses. Another idea is that the toxic leaves would prevent cows from menacing the graveyard.

Historically, yews have been considered as both omens of doom and symbols of being immortal.

The branches of the tree have been carried for centuries at weddings and on certain religious occasions.

How Is The Yew Used?

The close grain of the rich yew timber is incredibly strong and very durable. This strength means that even trees with hollowed out trunks can still remain standing.

Yew has traditionally been used to make bows and arrows as well as the handles for tools.

One of the most popular contemporary uses for yew is for hedging and topiary.

Certain anti-cancer compounds are extracted from the foliage and used in modern medicine. These are the toxic taxane alkaloids

The yew is a highly versatile tree.

Toxicity

hick's yew is poisonous

The alkaloids harnessed to fight cancer are actually incredible dangerous in their untouched state.

In fact, all parts of the yew except for the aril are dangerous. If a child eats just a few leaves it can have serious repercussions. It could even kill them.

So…

The yew is a mighty tree so how about the Hick’s yew in particular?

A Brief Look At The Hick’s Yew

hick's yew

Source: Okanagan Xeriscape

The Hick’s yew is known as Taxus x media “Hicksii”. This means that it is a hybrid of English and Japanese yews.

It flourishes in colder climates and its popularity is such that it can be often overused in landscaping.

It adapts well to pruning and grows slowly. This makes it an ideal choice if you have a small garden or live in an urban environment.

Hick’s yew will grow up to 12 feet tall and anywhere from 3 to 4 feet wide. It has a low canopy and clears the floor by 1 foot.

The branches grow long and upright making spectacular and effective hedges.

Leaves are dark green. They turn lighter in the spring. Flowers are not especially striking. In terms of fruits, you will witness red drupes throughout the fall.

The yew is one of the very few evergreens that thrive in the shade. It has a much more delicate texture than other less refined foliage.

Hick’s yew is low maintenance with no real downside to it.

It comes highly recommended in several areas of landacaping:

  • General gardening
  • Screening and hedges
  • Topiary
  • Mass planting
  • Vertical accent

How To Plant Hick’s Yew

  1. Look for somewhere with good drainage and partial sun. Although Hick’s yew copes well with the shade, it will flourish with at least a little sunlight. More important is to ensure that the soil drains freely and fully. Steer clear of anywhere that water collects
  2. Measure up the root ball
  3. Dig out a hole that’s 1 foot wider and a few inches deeper than the roots. Set the removed soil aside
  4. Get yourself some organic matter and work it in where the soil has been removed. Chuck in some coarse sand. Make sure you take out any rocks or large sticks you come across
  5. Fill up the hole with the soil you took out. Do this until the yew can sit flush with or even slightly above the surface. This allows plenty of air to reach the roots and stops any chance of the plant suffocating
  6. Fill up the hole with water from a hose. When the soil has settled, add some more. Repeat this procedure until the hole is completely filled

Handy Hint: If you plant your Hick’s yew in the early part of fall, you’ll avoid the first freeze. Water your newly planted shrubbery on a weekly basis. Once fully established, watering can be reduced.

Wrap-Up

Rich in mythology and well-documented for its toxicity, the yew is a formidable part of our landscape.

If you are looking for a no-nonsense hedge to keep out prying eyes while still looking attractive, the Hick’s yew is well worth looking into.

We always like to hear any feedback so please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any comments or questions.

Happy gardening!

Dianne T. Lampe
 

Hi there, I’m Dianne! Welcome to a one-stop shop for your gardening needs. We aim here to offer up a very wide range of information about many aspects of gardening. From flowers and planting through to vegetables and accessories, find all the information you need here. We have a true passion for everything green. We’re highly motivated to develop this site continuously and offer any insights we can alongside useful facts and handy hints. Please get in touch and let us know what you would like us to cover. Thoughts and feedback are always welcomed. Enjoy!

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Paul Wood - February 21, 2018

Hi. During 2017 and still ongoing a culmination of Yew study is coming to the fore. All things Yew are certainly moving on a pace but at the same time becoming more complex in understanding this interesting Tree. Some facts for you to add to your information. Some Yews that are Male can have Female Branches. Some Yews that are Female can have Male Branches. Both sexes can over time completely change from one sex to the other. A very small number of Yews can sometimes produce an area of colorless leaves. More and More Ancient and Veteran Yews are now being found in the countryside because people are now going out and looking for and finding them. It would appear that for some reason that as you mentioned all parts of the Common Yew are toxic except the Red flesh parts of the Arils ( the seed inside is highly toxic ) but some animals have been eating Yew for long periods and not dying. Some birds are able to pass the seed such as Mistle Thrush and Blackbird , but most smaller species of Bird will go nowhere near a Yew and No research is as yet available on why this happens and I have seen this with my own eyes on numerous occasions. The connection with the Christian Church sites is the most complex to understand. Yes there are a lot of big old trees in Churchyards, but Churches are continually repaired and restored. The actual Church Site and usually the Dedication may go back a lot further with most churches pre 11th Century being Timber structures. Christianity is recognized from text and imagery from the Roman Period and more and more evidence has recognized the Yew especially in the imagery as part of early Christianity. Text from Roman Britain also mentions Yew Groves as part of the Pre Christian places of worship for the native Britain’s especially the Druid. Remember History only records the stories of the winners of conflict but here we have Roman People telling us that before they came to these Isles So called Iron Age Britain’s had the Yew as part of the belief system and Lives. This though is still just a continuation of the Yew as part of the British Culture and belief. We now have confirmed Archaeological evidence a plenty that in the Bronze Age the Yew seems to have been a much revered and used Tree with many many artifacts that have been found usually from water logged deposits being made from Yew timber along with Bows and certain areas of the UK had pottery decorated with Yew branch and leaf imagery. So as you see the Yew is buried deep in our British History and not just as a Christian symbol. There are lots of complex variables to this history and new evidence is suggesting we could be going back to the Yew in the Neolithic and Paleolithic Periods as very much a revered tree but early days on this. Hope this helps the understanding a little better of the complex tree and its interaction with man deep into our history.

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