Plum Yew a hardy evergreen that likes shade

Cephalotaxus Harringtonia photos by Karen Lawrence

Dr. Bob Gilbert – Columnist

Dr. Bob Gilbert

One of the great things about winter is that our evergreen trees and shrubs become moreevident. In this article I want to describe a group of evergreens that have been unfamiliar for some time.  

Large sections of my woodland garden in Kennesaw were in the shade with smaller areas of partial shade.  So, I began in earnest looking for evergreen plants that did not need full sun.  To my surprise I found a family of evergreen conifers called Cephalotaxus (sef-a-lo-tak-sus) that were reportedly happy in the shade.  At the time all the conifers I knew about required almost full sun.  Also, plants like junipers were thought to be intolerant of very hot and dry southern environments.  In southern Ohio where I grew up Taxus (Japanese Yew) evergreens were used everywhere.  As a result of their popularity huge numbers of Taxus cultivars were available. I found them to be boring.  I incorrectly assumed Cephaloraxus was a variety of taxus.  Curious that bath of these conifers does not have cones.

Cephalotaxus is a separate species from Taxus and is commonly called Plum Yew.  They are far easier to grow than to find.  I obsessively struggled to find 22 different types presented by five species.  One commercial nursery claims they have 45 varieties.  The most common species is Harringtonia, named in hnor of an English Duke  who probably never saw the plant.   All forms have dark green needles except for “Korean Gold.” There are numerous forms that vary in height and width. The most popular cultivar “Duke Gardens” was developed at the Sarah Duke Gardens in Raleigh.  It only gets 2-3 feet tall and 3-4 feet wide. All Cephalotaxus seem to tolerate any soil type.  The fruits that appear only on female plants are actually a naked seed.  It is cherry red and turns an olive brown when mature.  The fruit looks like a miniature ripe plum.

Looking for something easy to grow that likes shade, hardy from zones 6-9, with handsome dark green evergreen needles?  Cephalotaxus would be a perfect choice.  Deer will eat Taxus to the ground and ignore its cousin Cephalotaxus completely.  

Dr, Bob Gilbert is co-founder of Smith Gilbert Gardens in Kennesaw, Ga. now lives in Franklin.

Karen Lawrence is a professional horticultural and wildlife photographer in Franklin.