beloved conifer: golden spreading yew

golden-yew.jpgENGLISH YEWS WERE A STAPLE of foundation planting around the house I grew up in, the darkest of green blobs with those tempting red berries we kids were warned to stay away from: poisonous. Maybe that sense of all-too-familiar put me off growing yews here when I began my garden–or at least until I discovered the spreading golden English form. The second in a series on beloved conifers

Taxus baccata ‘Repandens Aurea’ came to me like so many plants as a rooted cutting many years ago, a misshapen little nothing two gardening friends convinced me to order by mail. (You can sometimes get one at Forest Farm, though not every year.) It is about half way now to a mature size of perhaps 12 feet across and 2 to 4 feet high, and though it’s still irregularly shaped the yew has taken on considerable presence when I recall the wretched thing it was the day that I unpacked it from its traveling suit of wet newsprint.

I actually have three of the spreading golden yews here. (Why is it that I order everything in threes? Is it my lopsided version of Noah’s Ark?). The one shown (top) is swimming in a lake of big-root geranium, G. macrorrhizum. It’s a bed where I recently decided to up the golden quotient by adding a cutleaf golden staghorn sumac, Rhus typhina ‘Tiger Eyes’ (background), another plant whose leaves I love, which will eventually contribute more to the picture. A detail of the emerging new growth, the goldest of all, is shown below.

I’d add a photo of the golden yew with a covering of snow, as I did recently with the first conifer in this series of posts, the weeping Alaska cedar, except for one tiny detail: The golden yew isn’t golden in winter, but does its showing off in spring and summer, and now is just plain green. No matter for me; I think it offers plenty when it’s in the mood, and who among us has a nonstop sunny disposition? What I cannot offer, I do not ask of my plants.


  1. Gerri Hirshey says:

    But what can you tell us about deer here? Golden yew looks so tender and tasty…Here in the over-foraged Connecticut woods, we cannot bear much more heartbreak.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Gerri. What I can tell you about deer is this: 8-foot fence. After perhaps my first eight or 10 years, I gave up on figuring out what is deerproof (besides Narcissus), and built a fence around the place here. Deer will eat everything/anything if they are hungry enough. Things with thorns, or sharp needed (like blue spruces), even. Yews are definitely NOT deerproof, and in fact are popular browsing material. In Connecticut and other areas of close, heavy contact with deer, the solution is prevention (not plant choice), to my mind. Two parallel low fences about 4 feet apart (like a double picket fence, e.g.) or one high one, even if just to create a safety zone somewhere to garden within. I learned the hard way that there is nothing safe from deer that when combined even creatively amounts to a landscape. Fence. Think fence.

  2. nhnursery says:

    I have a golden yew planted in a partial shade area. I get some of the gold you describe. I believe the plant needs a bit more sun than I am able to provide. Still a very beautiful plant even in my conditions.

  3. Luckily no deer here but not enough sun to get that much gold either. I have a pair of them planted on either side of a path — one competing with silver maple roots and one with arborvitae roots. I bought them from Heronswood about 6 years ago. They were almost invisible they were so small. But I figured I could manage to dig a hole the size they would need and then I’d sit back and see if they could make it in such compromised conditions. They are doing fine but still slow going. And just enough gold in the spring to give me a mental boost. I love the way they look with the Geranium and the sumac in your garden.

  4. Grace says:

    I LOVE the golden yew. The color is outstanding. I don’t grow it but I purchased the Sumac ‘Tiger Eyes’ last summer–great plant. Beautiful photos.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Grace. Thank you for the kind words. I am excited about ‘Tiger Eyes’ and can’t wait till it fills in. Hope to see you again soon.

  5. Grace says:

    I’ve not seen this beauty before. I wonder if it would survive our harsh Minnesota winters. I’m zone 4 teetering on zone 3. It would look lovely tucked in front of a deep green yew I have right up against the front of my house. I also have a lovely variety of small and medium sized Hosta there.

    1. margaret says:

      I don’t know, but I seem to have (or have had, if one/some is/are now lost) three’s of many things. Fascinating. Someday I will inventory all my triplets…putting it on the list of Former Odd Behaviors to Examine.

  6. cat says:


    Amen on the fence! I gave up fighting a few years ago. I don’t like it, but the alternative is rage/despair.

    Beautiful shrub.


    1. margaret says:

      Gardening with elk, huh? Despite my location and seemingly endless fauna, that is one I hadn’t considered. Please do not give them my address.

  7. balsamfir says:

    Uh oh. It’s trouble looking at your website when in the middle of a major snowstorm. I WANT this. Another pilgrimage to Rocky Dale Gardens to see if they have them next spring I guess. And I was going to simplify…

  8. christine says:

    That is wonderful, I love that you have surrounded it with Geranium macro and topped it off with the Sumac. Who needs flowers?! You are so inspiring…thank you for sharing!

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Angela. The yew is hardy to the warm end of Zone 5 for certain, perhaps even the cold end. No worry in Zone 6. I have had the three of them many years, and am technically a Zone 5 (though haven’t had a minus-20 period lately to test it all the way to the coldest part of my supposed low range). It has never even had tipburn in the minus single digits or so, that I can tell you. I think it will love living with you. :)

  9. suzy bales says:

    Golden foliage is certainly welcome any time of year but, oh so much more welcome in winter. Golden foliage warms up the garden, especially on cold dark, snowy days. It lets the sunshine in. Think of how a spotlight lights a stage or how intense sunlight dazzles and you’ll get the point. It is the Midas touch!

    Gold in any form is eye catching. Your eye sees yellow before any other color. It attracts and dominates. (A note to the ladies if you want to be noticed, put your yellow dress on.)
    I recommend adding other golden conifers for winter interest: Oriental spruce ‘Skyland’, Chamaecyparis ‘Crippsii’ and a golden form of Juniperus chinensis are some of my favorites.

  10. andrea says:

    Oh Margaret, I had totally forgotton the dark green yews with beautiful tempting but “poisonous” berries in front of my home. Not only do I miss the home I grew up in — my mom planted the most incredible gardens — but I realize it is the velvety, rasberryish color of those soft round berries that is on the walls of my dining room and on a voluptuous sofa in my living room. Thanks for the epiphany!

  11. sid kvale says:

    I have golden yew growing in my backyard. It is beautiful now (summer), but will soon turn all green. It is soon becoming too large for the spot I picked for it (all sun), and it needs pruning. Does anyone have some good advice on pruning in the Pacific Northwest?

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Sid. Yews are one of the relatively few conifers that can take some serious pruning and even rejuvenation (cutting back hard into old wood to resize) but don’t do it now or you’ll be promoting fresh new growth before winter. If you have to cut back any branches really hard, do it in very early spring (like March?) when the plants are just about to start waking up into active growth. If the plant is the right size now but cannot get any bigger, you can simply shear it when the new growth is still soft in May-ish, as if you were trimming a hedge, or perhaps you will do a combination of cutting back some of the most ambitious branches and also trimming overall. Yews are pretty forgiving.

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