Rich, black-green foliage combined with graceful, elegant form characterizes Cephalotaxus harringtonia, the Japanese Plum Yew. Japanese Plum Yew is a native of Japan resembling its close relative, Taxus, the Common Yew. Japanese Plum Yew is a more refined plant than Common Yew with long, slender, and sharply tapered needles whose color is always a strikingly uniform deep green. It brings a distinctive evergreen formality to the garden and yet requires little maintenance. This marvelous plant thrives in the heat and humidity of the southeast and will perform well in shaded sites. Shade and hot, wet summers are environmental conditions that are severely stressful to Common Yew and many other desirable coniferous evergreens, and can eventually kill them. Plum Yew grows on through even the worst southern summers, maintaining excellent foliage color and quality throughout the ordeal.
Japanese Plum Yew is a coniferous evergreen shrub (or rarely, small tree) generally reaching 5 to 10 feet in height with ultimate habit and spread dependent on the cultivar. It is a slow growing plant, but this trait can be advantageous in many gardens with limited space - especially as it is shade tolerant and many shady gardens are those of small, restricted areas. Japanese Plum Yew transplants readily and prefers moist, well drained soil but once it is established, it will tolerate a wider range of soils, from dry and droughty to heavier clays. Japanese Plum Yew is hardy throughout the southeast from the coast to the mountains. Japanese Plum Yew propagates readily from cuttings but is a bit slow to root and grow on from the rooted cutting. Rooting promoters should be applied to the cuttings which can then be rooted under mist.
Like Common Yew, Japanese Plum Yew is a 'conifer' that does not bear cones but instead produces fleshy fruit that resemble a primitive berry. Botanically, these are actually naked seeds. The male and female flowers are produced on separate plants and so both must be present for the females to bear fruit. The seeds and foliage of all of the plants in this botanical group are generally quite poisonous if ingested but are not dangerous to handle.
Besides heat and shade tolerance, another advantage of Cephalotaxus over Taxus is that deer do not like Cephalotaxus foliage while they relish the tasty leaves of Taxus (and seem miraculously tolerant of the toxins in Taxus foliage). Deer can completely defoliate a well-grown Common Yew in one feeding, which usually leads to the death of the hapless Yew plant. Amazingly, the deer will not feed on Japanese Plum Yew in the same garden.
There are a number of forms of Japanese Plum Yew. One of the best known is 'Duke Gardens', named for the garden of origin of this cultivar. Sarah P. Duke Gardens at Duke University in Durham, NC has some lovely specimens of this beautiful, low growing cultivar with arching branching. 'Duke Gardens' will eventually reach 3 to 4 feet in height but it is slow to gain height as it spreads in a lovely, semi-formal, oval to rounded shape. 'Fastigiata' is the 'parent' plant of 'Duke Gardens' but this is surprising because 'Fastigiata' is an upright form with densely columnar branching. Its needles are somewhat shorter and are whorled around the stem giving a unique and interesting texture. 'Fastigiata' is very popular in small landscapes as both an elegant, low hedge or as a wonderful specimen for patio planters and other confined spaces. It will eventually reach 10 feet in height but its slow growth makes this a very long term process. At The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum), a magnificent, 25 year old specimen of 'Fastigiata' has reached 10 feet in height with a spread of about 7 feet. This noble plant holds quiet court just north of the Arboretum Visitor's Center. 'Fritz Huber' is very low growing with dense foliage of exceptional quality. The botanical variety C. harringtonia var. drupacea is a spreading plant native to Korea and Japan while 'Nana' is a rare spreading cultivar from the sea coasts of Japan. There are other species of Cephalotaxus that are often found in botanical gardens and arboreta. One of the most beautiful is Cephalotaxus fortunei, a native of China with exceptionally long, slender needles and an upright, vigorous habit (though still slow growing).
Japanese Plum Yew is one of the most beautiful of the needle-foliaged evergreens. Its versatile nature in the landscape and dependably elegant beauty deserve the attention of all southern gardeners. In addition to the older specimen near the Visitor's Center, a number of different Cephalotaxus can be seen at The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum). A refreshing walk through the gardens at the Arboretum will show their rich emerald luster in the late winter light.