The prostrate form of Japanese plum yew is an evergreen shrub that is native to Japan, Korea, and Eastern China and is hardy from USDA zones 6 to 9. In spring it is particularly attractive as the new growth is pale lime green and contrasts well with the dark-green, mature leaves. Low, mounded, arching branches arch up and out to form a low-growing shrub that never exceeds two to three feet tall. Primarily because of its neat, compact habit, this prostrate form of the plum yew has won both the Georgia and Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Gold Medals.
Leaves are linear and needlelike. Individual leaves about four to six inches long are arranged oppositely along the main stem or branch. These individual leaves are composed of many tiny needlelike leaflets that line up closely on the secondary stem to form a v-like trough of foliage. The photograph at the left will help with visualization and make the description clearer. Flowers are inconspicuous, and the naked seed is reddish brown at maturity.
Growing Preferences of Japanese Plum Yew
Although Cephalotaxus harringtonia in all its forms is tolerant of a wide range of soils, it prefers one that is moist and well-drained, at least until it becomes well established. Neutral to acidic soils are preferred, and good drainage is a must. Once established, plants are very drought tolerant.
A place in full to part shade is ideal. Although the plants can take full sun in mild, wet coastal settings, the full sun of the Deep South causes the leaves to be shorter and to turn a sickly, yellow green. Tolerance to heat and humidity makes it well suited to Deep South gardens. Maintenance is very minimal, but plants are amenable to pruning if needed. Winter wind and strong sun may cause temporary bronzing of the foliage.
Propagation of the Japanese plum yew requires much patience. Cuttings taken in the winter months take three to four months to root, after which time it takes about two years for the cutting to grow into a salable one-gallon plant. For upright forms, be sure to take tip cuttings from upright growth and not from side branches. Cuttings from side branches tend to develop a poor shape. Unfortunately, this propagation difficulty combined with its slow-growing nature, makes the plants scarce and comparatively expensive.
Species and Cultivars of Plum Yew
Most of the Cephalotaxus seen in gardens are shrubby forms or cultivars. Cultivars of prostrate and low-growing forms include ‘Fritz Huber' and ‘Duke Gardens'. C. harringtonia var. drupacea is a bushy, spreading form that has leaves arranged spirally around the stem instead of in two planes like most other cultivars. ‘Fastigiata' has short, tightly whorled needles and grows into a rotund columnar form up to 10 feet tall and 6 to 8 feet wide. Other cultivars are listed that have been selected for various features, but they may be harder to find in the trade.
We Southerners needn't be envious of our friends farther north who can grow some of the beautiful Taxus species. The Japanese plum yew is just as beautiful, and it is well adapted to the heat and humidity of the Deep South. Use the Cephalotaxus in whichever variety or form best suits your landscape needs. Its texture and neat habit make it ideal as a garden focal point. Plants can be grouped at the edge of a woodland, around a patio, or as part of a foundation planting. However you choose to use it, expect it to be an attractive, long-lived addition to your landscape.
Thanks to Conifers for the image of Cephalotaxus harringtonia 'Fastigiata'.