This section is from the book "The Gardener V3", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
Though limited to only two or three species, and even these regarded by some botanists as specifically identical, this genus is remarkably rich in distinct and useful varieties - many of them possessing in such a high degree those qualities so desirable in out-door decorative shrubs, that they form a prominent feature in almost every ornamental plantation.
It has a wide geographical distribution, the various forms being found more or less abundantly over North America, the temperate parts of Asia, and most of the countries of Europe, generally at high elevations, frequently extending to 4000 feet above the sea-level, but thriving best in sheltered valleys, where they attain the dimensions of large timber-trees.
The wood, which from its strength and elasticity was extensively employed by our ancestors before the invention of gunpowder in making bows, is now highly valued for artistic cabinet-work, turning, and carving. It is of a beautiful brownish-red colour, sometimes nearly white, frequently veined, very hard, close-grained, and susceptible of receiving a high polish.
All the sorts are of slow growth, particularly after the first few years, or after they attain heights of from 15 to 20 feet - their tendency then being to increase in breadth rather than in height.
Few shrubs are less fastidious in regard to soils and situations; and handsome specimens are to be found in every district of the country, growing and thriving in almost every variety of soil. There is no doubt, however, that they prefer a deep rich loam, with a subsoil cool and moist, and a situation moderately sheltered and shady rather than exposed to the full rays of the sun. They are, indeed, among the few evergreens that succeed well in the shade of high trees, not only growing well in such circumstances, but developing the peculiar dark glossy green of their foliage to the greatest perfection.
The European form of the genus is indigenous to Britain, and also found abundantly on most of the great mountain-ranges of the Continent, including the Alps, the Apennines, the Pyrenees, and the Caucasus, at elevations of from 1000 to 4000 feet.
This shrub or small tree, even when at full maturity, rarely exceeds 30 or 40 feet in height, with a trunk remarkably thick in proportion to its length, in some instances exceeding 50 feet in circumference at the base, the long spreading branches so abundant, and so densely clothed with branchlets and foliage in isolated specimens, that the stem is completely covered from the ground upwards.
Though cultivated in British gardens and pleasure-grounds, in churchyards and cemeteries, from time immemorial, this grand evergreen is still as popular as ever - indispensable among ornamental plants, occupying a place peculiarly its own, and forming the most effective contrast with most other shrubs, whether in groups or as single specimens; while the deep sombre green of its foliage and its stiff formal aspect suggest to every mind its singular appropriateness as an adornment to the resting-place of the dead. A popular writer, himself now reposing under " the yew-tree's shade," aptly says, " For the decoration of places of burial it is well adapted, from the deep and perpetual verdure of its foliage, which, conjointly with its great longevity, may be considered as emblematical of immortality".
Having naturally a dense twiggy habit of growth, and as it may be clipt or shorn into almost any shape with the greatest impunity, the English Yew has few equals as a garden hedge-plant, and as such has long been extensively used; and in the days now happily passed away, when it was fashionable to adorn gardens with shrubs cut into architectural forms, as well as into those of animals, and even man, its patience under the knife was amply taken advantage of, producing some of the most grotesque and intricate designs, with a solidity and sharpness of outline superior to either Juniper or Box.
From a long list of varieties we select the following as distinct, and worthy the attention of planters of choice shrubs: - Var. fastigiata, well known as the Irish Yew, is so different in habit of growth, foliation, and general appearance, that it is difficult to believe that it is not a distinct species. This fine form was found in the year 1780, growing among Juniper-bushes, on a mountain near Benoughlin (Lord Enniskillen's estate) by a tenant, who brought it to Florence Court; and it is believed that from this plant all those now in cultivation originated. Seeds saved from this form rarely if ever yield anything else than the species, proving satisfactorily that it is neither more nor less than one of these strange sports which occur from time to time among many other plants. It differs from the species in its erect columnar habit of growth; like that of the Lombardy Poplar, the leaves are disposed either in tufts or scattered irregularly along the branches, instead of in two rows; and the berries, instead of being round, are distinctly oblong. Two beautiful variegations of this variety have been introduced into cultivation, the one with its green leaves intermixed with white, the other with bright yellow, and named argentea and aurea respectively.
Both, particularly the latter, are great acquisitions, and though as yet comparatively rarely seen, will doubtless be extensively planted as soon as their merits become better known. Var. Cheshuntensis: this variety resembles the Irish Yew in its close upright habit, but is more conical, with the branches more diffuse; it is said to have originated from seed saved from the Irish Yew; it is very distinct. Var. Dovastonia: this sort is one of the finest of the sports from the species; the leaves are much longer, of a dark glossy green, and the branches long and pendulous; when the main stem of this fine plant is trained carefully up, and the side branches allowed to droop, it forms a beautiful lawn specimen-plant; it is sometimes grafted on stems of the common sort, and forms a neat standard weeping shrub, with branches shooting out horizontally and drooping at the points. Var. glauca, sometimes called Blue John, is a very striking variety of free vigorous growth, and of a more spreading habit than the species, but differing more particularly in the colour of the leaves, which are deep green on the upper surface, but on the under of a peculiar bluish-grey, while the bark on the young shoots is of a rusty brown; it is a very desirable and interesting plant.
Var. fructo-lutea differs from the species in no other respect than that its berries are of a bright golden-yellow. Var. aurea, the Golden Yew, is one of the most beautiful of variegations, presenting a brilliancy of colour which is unsurpassed among variegated Conifers, and which is invaluable as a contrast in mixed groups; this sort is sometimes grafted on the top of both the Common and the Irish Yews, in each case with grand results. Var. elegantissima: this is another variegation, rather straw-coloured than golden, very distinct from the last, and equally valuable whether on its own roots or grafted on the English or Irish sorts. Var. ericoides: this variety differs only from the species in its being much more slender in all its parts; it is an interesting tiny shrub, and suitable for small beds or front rows of the more robust-growing shrubs. Var. erecta: this is a neat, close-growing, conical-shaped shrub, densely clothed with smaller leaves than the species, and forming an attractive lawn plant; a pretty variegation of this variety is in cultivation, with blotches of gold intermixed among the green leaves, and has been named erecta aurea variegata.
Var. nana, or Foxii, is a very dwarf variety, rarely rising above 2 feet from the ground, the branches slender and spreading, interesting for planting on and around rockeries, or on the margins of small beds.
Taxus adpressa (the Flattened or Creeping Yew), by some authors believed to be only a variety of baccata, is a native of mountains in Japan, from whence it was sent home to this country a few years ago. In its native habitats it is rarely found higher than about 7 or 8 feet, forming a spreading, flat-headed shrub, with numerous branches, densely furnished with short branchlets, thickly clothed with short, flat, dark-green leaves. On its own roots in this country it presents very much the appearance thus described, and is only really useful for rockerie3 or small beds, in which situations it is very distinct and interesting. Grafted, however, as it now very often is, on stems of the English or Irish sorts, it is one of the prettiest of weeping shrubs, and ought to be extensively planted in choice collections. Of this species a variety named A. stricta deserves attention, having a more vigorous habit, more upright, and can be trained to a single stem with greater facility, forming a neat dwarf front-row shrub.
Like the preceding species, this is believed by some botantists to be only a variety of baccata. It is found wild in considerable abundance in Canada and the United States, growing in shady situations, from whence it was first introduced about 1800. It grows about 4 feet high, and has a spreading bushy habit of growth, with short, pale glossy-green leaves abundantly clothing the branches; the bark is of a dark-brown colour; the berries, which are smaller than those of baccata, are of a bright coral-red, rendering the plant very attractive when they are ripe, as they are generally produced in great abundance. It is a distinct and interesting dwarf shrub, quite hardy, and of free growth when planted in a moderately moist, sheltered situation. A variety of this species, named "Washingtonii, has its leaves prominently variegated with a bright golden-yellow.
Taxus Lindleyana (the Canadian Yew), by some botanists called baccata Americana, found in valleys and on river-sides in Northern California, is described as a handsome tree of from 20 to 30 feet high, and from 4 to 5 feet in circumference near the ground; the branches are long, slender, somewhat pendulous, and covered with a yellow or light brown bark; the leaves, which are produced in great abundance, are very similar in size and shape to those of baccata, but of a light-green colour. In a young state this plant is very distinct and pretty. It seems to be quite equal to our climate, and promises to be a useful and interesting acquisition to our collection of ornamental shrubs.