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, though, Cephalotaxus is rated as not to their liking by experts from geographic areas as diverse as North Carolina State University, California-based Monrovia Nursery (a giant wholesaler), Rutgers University (New Jersey), and Michael Dirr in his various reference books.

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.

The plum yew I failed with was the fastigiate form, C. harringtoniana ‘Fastigiata.’ In my usually snowy winters, its distinctly vertical branches got splayed open again and again, and the shrub 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 to 3 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 one wholesale nursery 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 specimens 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

  1. Robin 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.

    1. margaret 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!!

    1. margaret 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.

    1. margaret 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!

    1. Cathy Dunne says:

      I am in Davidson, NC and just purchased 5 Japenese Plum Yews for a hedge. We are worried about how long it will take for them to achieve enough size to provide the privacy we’re looking for. They will be in mostly sun and will have good soil and drainage. I don’t want my husband to give up on them! What do you think?

  5. Daniela says:

    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

  6. Kathy says:

    I just found your website while I was looking up information about Prostrata. I bought a beautiful one yesterday at a huge discount from our local nursery. My plan is to put it in a container until I decide on a good location. Do you think it will be okay in an insulated container through the winter? I live in Zone 6. Thank you!

    1. margaret says:

      If the container is very large, for a lot of root insulation, probably so. The issue with conifers is that they keep their leaves all winter — meaning they’re exposed to winter burning and drying. I’d place the pot in a sheltered spot for extra protection.

    1. margaret says:

      Reference sources disagree; some say yes, some say no. ASPCA doesn’t list it … probably because it’s not so commonplace and widely used … but note that apple trees and crabapples and burning bush and English ivy and boxwood and holly and elephant’s ears and Heuchera and Coreopsis and zucchini and daylilies and rhododendron and chrysanthemum on and on all are listed as such — by which I mean, many very familiar plants that may be in your garden already are listed as such. The ASPCA’s top 17 pet-toxic plants. If a pet is inclined to chew on plants, there are a lot of possibilities out there that can cause upset or serious illness or worse.

  7. Susan Buckley says:

    I wonder if you have any clarification regarding the of toxicity of Cephalotaxus. We have had such heavy snow in our area that deer and elk have moved into residential and nusiness areas. So far about 20 beautiful elk have died from eating Japanese yew. The county is considering a ban on yew but to see Plum Yew suggested as a desirable shrub on multiple sites creates a lot of confusion. Any current research on the toxicity of Cephalotaxus? Thank you.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Susan. I do not know about toxicity in Cephalotaxus, except to say that all the Taxus relatives are said to have some degree of toxicity. The plum yew is more deer-resistant than the regular yew, which makes it attractive for garden use. Sorry not to see any research on the topic of its animal toxicity.

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