Japanese Yew

By: the Editors of Publications International, Ltd.  | 
A close-up of a Japanese yew plant with its signature red berries. 
Japanese yew is a shade-tolerant conifer with bright berries.

Despite it's exotic name, the Japanese yew (aka spreading yew) can be found in parks and neighbourhoods all over the Western hemisphere. The dense foliage of Japanese yews make them the ideal accent plants and perfect for hedge rows.

You see, most conifers don't like the shade, but Japanese yews are a major exception. These popular evergreen shrubs thrive in partial shade or full sun, and can add a pop of color to the otherwise barren shade garden from fall through early spring.


What is a Japanese Yew?

In its original form, the Japanese yew (taxus cuspidata) is a single-trunked tree reaching 50 feet in height [source: Britannica]. The species is rarely grown in cultivation, having been replaced by the numerous dense, slow-growing varieties that may be globular, vase-shaped, pyramidal, or spreading, depending on the selection.

Although they are labeled dwarf plants, most eventually become quite high: 20 feet or more. The dark green needles have rounded tips and are not "scratchy" like most other conifers. Female plants bear bright red berries.


The Japanese yew is widely used as a foundation plant, especially on the north or east sides of the home. It makes an excellent formal or natural hedge, and dwarf varieties — of which there are many in different sizes, shapes, and colors — are popularly used in rock gardens.

Growing Japanese Yew Plants

There are a variety of ways to go about adding a Japanese yew to an outdoor space. To propagate Japanese yew, professionals often use cuttings from established plants and sometimes even seeds. Homeowners and hobby gardeners would likely opt to purchase a small tree from a garden centre and adding it to their own garden [source: Van Zile].

For best results, carefully consider the landscape before breaking ground. Yews are perfectly tolerant of moderate shade, and even deep shade, as long as they get some spring sunlight. In dense shade, the shrubs will require harsher pruning to help fill in the gaps formed by a more open growth pattern.


Yews need fertile, well-drained soil as well as ample moisture. Poorly drained soil can cause root rot, which will kill the plant. They will not tolerate root competition from shallow-rooted trees, so plant Japanese yew away from other plants that might compete with them.

Are Japanese Yew Berries Edible?

You wouldn't think that a plant as popular as the Japanese yew could be toxic. But in actual fact, Japanese yew is considered one of "the most poisonous woody plants in the world," [source: Ray]. Nearly all elements of the yew plant contain lethal levels of taxine alkaloids.

The only part of the yew plant that isn't poisonous is the red flesh of the berries. Don't go eating a handful of yew berries just yet. Though the fleshy red fruit of the berries are considered safe, the seeds inside can be incredibly toxic. Which is why they should always be treated with extreme caution.


So, is the Japanese yew poisonous? The answer is a resounding yes.

Want more information on gardening and great plants you can grow? Try:

  • Shade Gardens: You don't need loads of direct sunlight to create a lush retreat in your yard, garden, or patio space. Learn how to plant a vital shade garden.
  • Shade Garden Plants: Find out about stunning options for planting that will make your shade garden unique and lovely.
  • Garden Types: There are many ways to cultivate a lush oasis around your home. Read about all the different types of gardens you can create.
  • Gardening: Get great tips on how to keep your garden healthy and thriving.