beloved conifer: prostrate japanese plum yew

I KILLED, OR AT LEAST MAIMED, ITS UPRIGHT COUSIN. TWICE. But the prostrate-growing Japanese plum yew, Cephalotaxus harringtoniana ‘Prostrata,’ just keeps happily stretching its legs—and arms—on my back hillside. A handsome, heat-tolerant conifer that creates a sprawl of semi-glossy green groundcover in the shade…even though it’s many times wider than any book or other reference promised. More of a good thing, I guess you could say, and also deer-resistant.

The Japanese plum yew has linear, dark green flat needles that resemble its namesake’s: the yew, or Taxus. (Those are its needles and also its male reproductive structures, below; ‘Prostrata’ is all-male, and therefore makes no female seed-producing structures.) While Taxus is deer candy, Cephalotaxus is rated by experts as diverse geographically as North Carolina State University, California-based Monrovia Nursery (a giant wholesaler), Rutgers University (New Jersey), Weston Nursery (Massachusetts) and Michael Dirr in his various reference books as not to their liking.

It’s also rated as hardy for Zones 6-9 in most references, but I can say that Cephalotaxus has lived more than decade in my Zone 5B garden (and Weston’s website agrees). The plum yew I failed with was the fastigiate form, C. harringtoniana ‘Fastigiata.’ In my (usually) snowy winters, its linear vertical branches got splayed open again and again, and never really recovered its handsome columnar stance, so I dug it out. Not dead, technically, but so badly maimed that I knew we weren’t meant for each other longterm.

With ‘Prostrata,’ though, it’s been nonstop success. At about 2 feet high, it makes a handsome underplanting for large trees, or cascading down a shady or semi-shady bank (top photo). Books say it can be more like 3 feet tall, but not here so far in a decade. (I’m in denial about the entry in the Weston catalog that says after 15 years it may decide to be a mounded shrub up to 8 feet high at the tallest point, and will try to discourage mine from any such behavior.)

The trickiest part, though: spacing. Plant labels in the nursery will claim a 3-to-4-foot spread or thereabouts; my original plant is now 12 feet across.  Two much newer plants are already at the supposed maximum girth, and look likely to take off much farther sideways.

My best advice: Select individual plants in the nursery whose habit seems to be lowest-growing, and give them more room than the label states. After more than 25 years gardening in one place, I can say with certainty that the number of woody things that have stayed within the bounds that reference books or plant labels told me they would adhere to is about zero.

Other ‘Groundcover’ Conifers I Rely On

9 comments
April 15, 2012

comments

  1. says

    It’s reassuring to know that sometimes plants die even when you’re taking care of them. It makes me feel a little less intimidated about turning my market garden into a garden like yours.

    • says

      Oh, Robin, every time I go outside I feel intimidated! So much to learn even after many years, and the crazy weather doesn’t help (very dry here after a year of near-flooding and damaging autumn snows and so on). It’s all experimenting and trying things on your own site — no substitute for just jumping in! Nice to hear from you.

  2. gayle says

    Hi – just wanted to say that I thought your talk at Cylburn Arboretum in Baltimore was just great. I’ve been getting your blog for sometime now and was excited when I saw you were going to be in my area.

    Great job! Love your blog!!
    Gayle

    • says

      Thank you so much, Gayle. How kind of you to say so. What a great audience that was — a full house! — and such a responsive, warm crowd. Glad to know you were there.

  3. Ann says

    I planted several plum yews a couple of years ago in zone 7b/8. Most are just now showing some new growth, altho’ one is not. Is it typical for them to be slow starters?
    I love the look, but am concerned about the lack of growth.

    Thanks for all your great info.

    • says

      Hi, Ann. They are slow growers, especially as they get established/rooted in. After the first two or three years, my oldest plant took off a bit faster; the newer ones (just a few years in the ground) are starting to bulk up now.

  4. Marilyn says

    I’m in zone 7B and the Japanese plum yews (Duke Gardens) that get the most sun and least root competition are the ones that are doing the best. Planted in the same year, those in sun are 4 feet wide and 18 inches tall. Those planted in shade with more root competition are 18 inches wide and just 6 inches tall. Camelia Forest Nursery also observes that they can do very well with a bit more sun. We call them our “Dr Seuss” plant — the new growth looks like the crazy tufts of hair on his characters. I love them so much, that I am trying a Cephalotaxus Fortunei this year. It should get to be a very large shrub or small tree, with that same gorgeous completely deer resistant foliage. So far, it’s doing awesome!

  5. Daniela says

    Hi
    Just wanted to tell you how in love I am with your blog. It was a recent discovery as I suffer from spring fever or in other words can’t wait to get my fingers dirty.
    I bought three prostrate Japanese plum yew from a small local nursery in 2011 and we are in love with them. We are in zone 5b and they did survive 2 winters well here. Last fall I went back to that nursery and they had some sad looking ones in pots dried out by the hot summer we had. I bought them again highly discounted, gave them a hair cut and I can tell they are already happier in the ground.
    If you don;t already have it, look into another cool evergreen shrub called whipcord thuja plicata. It is only 2 years old in my garden but it is a cool shrub

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