Louis Raymond experiments in his own gardens like

a mad scientist, searching out plants that most people have

never seen before & figuring out how to make them perform.- The Boston Globe

…Louis Raymond ensures that trees can grow in Brooklyn…

or just about any other place where concrete consumes

the dirt and skyscrapers shield the sunshine.- USA Today

 
 

NEW Trips to Take!

Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.

 
 
 
 

NEW Plants to Try!

Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.

 
 
 
 

New Gardening to Do!

Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.

 
 
 
 

Plant Profiles

Trunks of the Japanese Yew

taxus-cuspidata-west-trunks-best-032112-640

 

The trunks of the large old tree yew show bark at its best:  A warm orange-red inner layer is revealed where the flaky outer bark has fallen away.  This tree's trunks have even more talents on their shady side, where lichen colonizes energetically—and none of the orange-red inner layer is exposed. 

 

taxus-cuspidata-east-and-north-face-of-trunks-without-the-flakiness-032112-640

 

The bark is so different one side to the other, sunny side to shady side.  The tree is truly Janus-faced.

 

Each side's appearance is its own puzzle.  Lichen can live almost anywhere, tolerating extended drought as well as heat and cold.  Why has't it colonized the sunny side?  Perhaps the flakes there fall off comparatively quickly, so any bits of lichen that start to establish wind up on the ground.  

 

And why isn't there any orange-red inner bark exposed on the shady side?  Does the lichen help the flakes adhere instead of fall?  Some lichens secrete chemicals that can change the nature of what they perch on—their "substrate"—dramatically.

 

taxus-cuspidata-east-trunks-best-lichen-032112-640

 

Or is the colorful inner layer only produced as a result of greater sun or heat exposure?  Does sun and heat help flakes to "mature," or, more simply, to dry out and curl away from the trunk?  Does the colorful inner layer actually cause the outer layers to exfoliate?

 

Is this tree's location outside my deerfence important?  Could its west side be a convenient spot for antler rubbing?  Right elevation—only a foot or two above the ground—but wrong geometry: The bucks are rubbing the velvet from their antlers, and are also rubbing a scent-laden patch of their forehead directly against the tree.  Only solitary trunks, and not very thick ones, would permit that.  Any deer that had tried to rub its antlers or its forehead on these yew trunks would have gotten trapped between them. 

 

The tree's two-faced trunks seem to be a creation of the tree and the lichen, not the result of animal activity.  But the possible causes are many as well as mysterious.

 

 

Here's how to grow this exceptionally versatile yew:


Latin Name

Taxus cuspidata

Common Name

Japanese yew

Family

Taxaceae, the Yew family.

What kind of plant is it?

Evergreen coniferous tree.

Hardiness

Zones 4 - 7.

Habit

Upright but variable.  Some individuals develop a central trunk or trunks, becoming tree-like in habit as well as size.  Others, like mine, are multi-trunked right from the base, and are as broad as tall, if not more so.  When I'm in the neighborhood, I always pay respect to an old T. cuspidata in Sherborn, Massachusetts, with a score of mighty branches arising right from the base to form a giant inverted pyramid of growth thirty feet tall and at least that wide.

 

The habit can be dramatically influenced by pruning; many such multi-trunked wonders are the result of having been pruned into a rounded shrub in their very early years, and then left by future owners to grow free-range.

Rate of Growth

Medium. 

Size in ten years

Eight to ten feet tall and five or six feet wide.  Yews are usually pruned, for better or worse, so free-range dimensions often aren't very relevant. Ultimately to fifty feet or higher.

Texture

Unless pruned, open and irregular, with plenty of trunk and branches showing amid the foliage.

Grown for

its hardiness: Taxus cuspidata is two climate zones hardier than its european cousin, Taxus baccata, which is hardy only to Zone 6.  (The many named hybrids of the two are called Taxus x media, and are as hardy as T. cuspidata.  I've profiled one of them, 'Flushing'.)  If you're gardening west of Boston, MA, and north of Harrisburg, PA, any yew you'd plant will have plenty of T. cuspidata blood in its veins. 

 

its size: Taxus cuspidata is a tree, not a shrub, and will eventually get large enough to anchor the largest civic or corporate landscapes.

 

its longevity: If permitted, a given yew can live for many centuries.

 

its deer-proof height: Yews with shrubby habit and dimensions are always at risk for deer browsing.  Taxus cuspidata is a tree, so as long as you plant individuals whose top is taller than where deer forage—six feet is usually fine, but if you can afford it, buy a seven-footer—your yew will develop its canopy out of nibbling range.  The deer browsing will also get you started on revealing the trunk; prune off the branches they've stripped to complete the job.

 

its exfoliating bark: In a decade or two—only a heartbeat in the millennial life of a yew—the medium-brown bark on the lower portion of the trunk and major branches will become flaky.  Where the flakes fall (or where you remove them: see "Quirks and special cases"), a smooth warm red-mahogany inner surface is revealed.  In color if not in extent, the display is the equal to that of the bark of Stewartia pseudocamellia, Clethra barbinervis, Pinus bungeana, Acer griseum, or Arbutus menziesii.  Bark on the shady side of Taxus cuspidata can become heavily colonized with lichen and moss, both of which provide exciting textural and coloristic contrast.

 

its flexibility: All yews are legendarily accommodating when it comes to pruning.  You can approach bearing any or all of these: hand pruners, loppers, folding saws, chain saws, or hedge pruners—and the tree won't flinch.  New growth will appear even from the base of the trunk of a tree that was cut to the ground.  Of all the conifers, only Cunninghamia, Cephalotaxus, and Araucaria are similarly talented.

Flowering season

Yews flower in Spring; the flowers are not showy.  Plants are either male or female, and some entire cultivars are exclusively one sex or the other.  Only females bear the bright red arils—not a fruit, not a berry—each of which partially encloses a single seed.

Color combinations

Taxus cuspidata carries dark green needles, which go with anything.  Neither its red fruits nor its warm-red inner bark are so prominent or extensive as to skew its color compatibility away from any other color—although, of course, they are a natural, if subtle, partner to plants that celebrate red, orange, and burgundy.

Partner Plants


Yews are as famous for their greedy roots as for their imperviousness to pruning.   Any plant's roots can be expected to extend as far out as its canopy, so if you need to pair Taxus cuspidata with horticulture that would be within its canopy width, install it the same time you plant the yew itself.  It is difficult to retrofit yews with companion plantings.

 

Yews are the best backdrop for just about anything but another conifer:  Anything that flowers; has foliage that's colorful (or at least not as dark as that of the yew) or comparatively large (which, given the small needles of the yew, means everything); has showy bark or berries; or has an interesting form (especially in Winter, when that form is often free of the distractions of leaves or flowers), would look better backed by the foliage and bulk of yews.  Because Taxus cuspidata can grow to thirty feet and more, it's the ultimate backdrop for ornamental trees—such as magnolias, cherries, Japanese maples—that are too tall for yew hedges. Admittedly, the yews might take so long to grow high enough that you'd be on your second generation of ornamental trees.  Take the long view—and plant the Taxus as soon as possible.

Where to use it in your garden

Yews can live for many generations.  It's not possible to count growth rings accurately because the centers of old trunks tend to rot out even while the trees themselves continue to carry on century after century.  But even by conservative consensus, the oldest yews are thought to be entering their third millenium. 

 

By contrast, a tree that is perhaps more commonly thought of as the epitome of venerable grandeur, the European beech, is a doddering oldster at 150 years.  It has matured and died while a young yew was still working up the nerve to ask someone to the high school prom. 

 

So you can site yews with one eye on what you need them to do in the next five, ten, and twenty years—and the other on what they might do in the next five, ten, and twenty centuries.  It's not often that gardening can create a bond between the present and the unknowably distant future.

 

Given the enormous age that your Taxus cuspidata is capable of achieving, it's wiser not to locate one with the expectation that countless generations of future owners will share your commitment to pruning.  Plant Taxus cuspidata where it has the best chance of being able to grow free-range forever.  Never plant the trees within thirty feet of a building; trees that have one side amputated because of an adjacent building never look other than, well, amputated.

Culture

Full sun, part sun, or half shade.  Growth is sparser and slower in shade.  Almost any soil—alkaline or acid, lean or nutrient-rich, moisture-retentive or gravelly—provided that it's very well drained.

How to handle it:  The Basics

Taxus cuspidata is easy to establish, and will thrive in almost any exposure and soil as long as the soil is well-drained.  Colder than Zone 6, plant in Spring only.

 

In sizes taller than a few feet, Taxus cuspidata is usually available only as balled-and-burlapped stock.  As is typical for any evergreen, the root ball will be larger than for a deciduous plant of equal size.  Given that Taxus cuspidata is often planted because of its eventual size, larger stock is often the choice.  For all of these reasons, the plants you buy will be heavy; they may even have a wire cage around the rootball.

 

If possible, only purchase plants that are burlapped with the real thing, not a plastic-weave substitute.  You'd need to remove artificial burlap, which puts the root-ball at risk for fracturing or even collapsing, because yew roots don't form tightly- or strongly-cohering rootballs.  Assuming the burlap is not fake, leave it on, and also leave it tied; also leave on any wire cage.  After planting, untie the burlap and cut off the exposed flaps. The below-grade burlap will quickly degrade.  Using wire snips, cut off the exposed top rung of the wire cage.  The tree's roots will grow through and around the wiring of the cage, eventually including it in their growth. The cage will not strangle the roots.

 

Taxus cuspidata trees that are intended for free-range growth don't need formative pruning.  If they are sited where deer browsing is likely, though, remove lower branches from the bottom five feet of the trunk. 

 

Taxus cuspidata trees that will be grown into a hedge should be planted as closely togther as you can afford.  If possible, dig a trench and have large plants lowered into place with their root-balls almost abutting.  You can begin pruning the very first season.  Prune in Spring the first few years, so new growth will hide the occasional stump of an original branch that was completely out of bounds.  After the surface of the hedge is composed uniformly of small growth, you can prune in the Fall as well, so that the clean lines and sharp angles of the pruned hedge will be retained all Winter long. 

 

As is always the case with hedges, prune so that the top of the hedge is distinctly and even drastically narrower than the bottom, which enables plenty of sun to reach the entire face of the hedge and therefore encourages the fullest growth top to bottom.  A narrow top also helps minimize any need to react to a heavy snow-load, let alone to have to race outside with a broom when the blizzard is still raging.

 

Remember that yews don't tolerate even middling drainage let alone poor drainage.  Help ensure that your young (and expensive) hedge handles surface water with dispatch, by planting the hedge down the center of a low mound two feet wide and six inches high.  You'll also be giving your hedge a six-inch head start in height, too.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?


Free-range individuals sometimes benefit from some major pruning.  Don't hesitate to saw off limbs that are too wide-spreading or are crossing any of their cohort at a less-than-stylish angle.  If your goal is a multi-trunked tree, thinning can reveal the limbs that are the most sculptural.  A Taxus cuspidata with dozens of limbs looks like a mere tree; one with only five or seven limbs is more likely to look like a well-loved specimen.  Fewer-limbed trees are the only ones for whom bark polishing is practical; see "Quirks" below.

Quirks or special cases


Ah, that inner bark. The flakes of the outer bark are large enough that you can reveal more of the inner manually: When you have the yen, pull off a few more flakes.  It is possible to polish the trunk to remove the entire flaky layer, at least temporarily, although I'm not sure how.  On my life-list is a visit to Crathes Castle in Scotland, where such a polished yew is the focal point of the grassy axis between a pair of borders.  When I get there, I'll ask about the polishing.

Downsides

It's a grim irony that while Taxus plants are intensely toxic to livestock, deer chew them with relish.  Few of us will ever need worry that Flossie will get loose and come to a sad end by munching on our yews.  But who except a city gardener doesn't need to deal with deer?  Unprotected yew plants can be stripped of foliage.  Protect by netting them, or spraying with deer repellent, or—best of all—fencing in your garden.

 

Yews tolerate hot sun as well as substantial shade; acid soil as well as alkaline; shallow soil as well as deep.  But they do not tolerate poor drainage.  In heavy soil or if the planting area is flat regardless of soil character, it's best, if possible, to plant yews on a low but broad mound, even if it's only a few inches high.

Variants

There aren't many species of yew, but nearly all of them are very productive.  There are over two hundred cultivars with Taxus baccata as one of the parents; when they also involve T. cuspidata—like 'Flushing' does—they are termed Taxus x media.  These combine the interesting habits and needle colors of T. baccata, which is hardy only down to Zone 6, with the much greater hardiness of T. cuspidata, hardy to Zone 4.  T. canadensis is hardier still, but its foliage, which bronzes severely in the cold, is considered inferior.  T. brevifolia is a West Coast species whose biggest contribution to date is as a source of taxol, an anti-cancer drug.

 

Yew habits range from dwarf (T. baccata 'Pygmaea') to low and spreading (T. baccata 'Repandens') to lowish and bushy (T. cuspidata 'Densa') to squat but upright (T. x media 'Hatfieldii') to narrow and upright ('Flushing' and many others) to fat but still upright (T. baccata 'Fastigiata') to immense and tree-like (T. cuspidata).  Forms with golden as well as white-edged needles exist.  T. baccata 'Standishii' is the best of the upright gold-needled forms; it's astoundingly slow.  I also have T. baccata 'Fastigiata Aurea', which becomes immense if given fifty years or so.  'Amersfoort' has green leaves that are a quarter the usual length.

 

Yews are so serviceable and flexible that they will always be in demand in landscapes.  And they hybridize as well as mutate readily.  There will never be a dearth of new cultivars to evaluate.

Availability

On-line and at retailers.

Propagation

By cuttings.

Native habitat

T. cuspidata is native to Japan, Korea, and Manchuria.  Taxus baccata is native to Europe, north Africa, and west Asia. 

 
 
FacebookTwitterRSS Feed

Stay in touch!

 

Sign up for twice-monthly eNews, plus notification of new posts:

 

* indicates required