Cornus controversa

Cornus controversa 'Variegata'
Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’

Best known in gardens in the form of Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ this plant has had a convoluted history. The species C. controversa Heml. was first “discovered” in cultivation. In January of 1909 an article was published in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine which discussed the naming of Cornus macrophylla and the authors noted that there appeared to be confusion regarding the name. Though introduced back in 1827 it was not widely grown but it was known to be a tall and bushy plant when observed in the wild and this varied little over it wide natural range.  William Botting Hemley who had retired as Keeper of the Herbarium and Library at Kew the year before had studied this and noted that the examples in cultivation were a mixture of two species: one with opposite leaves and the other alternate.

Cornus controversa 'Variegata' foliage
Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ foliage

The simple fact was that the naming had got into a mess but when the original specimen that Wallich had named C. macrophylla was checked it had opposite leaves and the original description in Flora indica of 1820 described the leaves as “sub-opposite”. Next Meyer in 1845 had also described the plant in a Saint Petersburg publication but naming it C. brachypoda. All this resulted in America and continental Europe using Meyer’s name of C. brachypoda for the form of the plant with opposite leaves and C. macrophylla for the alternate leafed form while in Britain both forms were known as C. macrophylla. In an attempt to clear things up the German botanist Bernhard Koehne tried to split the species in the belief that the Himalayan form was a distinct species which he called C. corynostylis but got confused between the opposite and alternate leaf arrangements. To clear up this confusion William Hemley proposed that if the plant had its leaves arranged opposite one another on the branches it should be called C. macrophylla Wall. as has been Nathaniel Wallich’s intention and the alternate leafed form should be a separate species Cornus controversa Hemsl. meaning cornus controversial, a most appropriate name. And that is as it has remained; apart from an attempt to place several of the cornus species, this one included, in the genus Swida in the 1960’s.

Cornus controversa 'Variegata' foliage close up
Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ foliage close up

That would be the end of it with C. controversa Hemsl. providing us with a very garden worthy small tree with tiered branches and masses of cream flowers in May, but towards the end of the 19th century a variegated from was found and shortly before 1890 Veitch Nurseries introduced it as Cornus brachypoda ‘Variegata’. Now known as Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ this is a plant which stands out to gardeners and non-gardeners alike. Smaller growing than the original but retaining the tier arrangement of branches, the leaves are longer and narrower and tend to be asymmetrical in shape with an irregular creamy-white margin. Known by the common name The Wedding Cake Tree its hardy in the UK and was awarded an AMG by the RHS in 1993.

Its size and shape means it is best suited to a larger garden where it has room to grow and show off its tiered habit and would look particularly effective in a large border with an under planting of spring bulbs. The flowers are followed by berries and on some soils attractive autumn foliage. The plant is often produced by grafting and so care should be taken to watch out for suckers from the more vigorous rootstock which need to be removed as soon as seen.

Viscum album

Viscum album
Viscum album subsp. platyspermum on limes trees at Hampton Court Palace, London

Mistletoe has fascinated humans for millennium, many plants have superstitions attached to them but mistletoe seems to have attracted more than most. It’s not hard to understand that a clump of evergreen leaves growing out of dormant tree in midwinter would grab the imagination. The druids are said to particularly venerate mistletoe growing on an oak tree, something it rarely does, harvesting it with a golden scythe on the 6th day after a new moon. Consisting that the plant is woody and gold is an extremely soft metal I not sure how true that is and as they left no written records of themselves this could just be dramatic invention. It still plays an important part in culture with the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas but the plant is poisonous with a few berries bring on stomach ache though serious poisoning is rare.

Viscum album is wide spread across Europe and it has over the centuries been seen as a cure of a vast range of ailments right up to the present time. Diokorides (the 1st century AD Greek physician) reported that Hippocrates (in the 4th to 5th century BC) believed mistletoe could be used in the treatment of complaints the spleen and menstruation. Over the following centuries it has been recommended as a treatment for swellings, tumours, epilepsy, infertility and ulcers. In more recent times people have tried to use is to treat hypertension and cancer.

Viscum album
Viscum album (Mistletoe)

The genus Viscum L. contains about 100 spices but only V. album L. is native the UK and then mainly in the south and midlands. In naming Viscum album L.. Linnaeus took the Latin for mistletoe as the genus and album, no doubt referring to the distinct white berries, for the species name and listed it in volume 2 of his Species Plantarum. The genus Viscum L. is presently in the family Santalaceae along with 6 other genera. The common name Mistletoe comes from the old English mistel and many semi-parasitic plants around the world have the same common name. It is also known as including All-heal and Masslin in England and has many other names across Europe, Germany having a particularly large collection of names for it.

Mistletoe is notoriously difficult to establish and the species is now divided into 3 sub-species depending on the host plant it lives on.

Viscum album subsp. abietis (Wiesb.) Abrom. which grows on Abies species.

Viscum album subsp. austriacum (Wiesb.) Vollm. which grows on pine trees and very rarely on spruce.

Viscum album subsp. platyspermum Kell. (subsp. album) which grows on hard wood trees.

This goes in part towards explaining why it is so difficult to establish mistletoe as the sub-species are very specific to their chosen host but there also appears to be genetic factors as not all potential host can be infected with equal ease. For example, oak is rarely infected but even then there is a wide range of how readily a plant will be infected with a particular oak species. Therefore, where a plant has only a few mistletoe plants on it not become host to a lot and only specimens with a lot of mistletoes will host a lot.

Mistletoe is evergreen with tiny flowers that are insect pollinated and would never be noticed; the insects are attracted by the sweet smell . The male and female flowers are on separate plants with about 4 times as many female plants as male ones. The plants flower between the end of February and April  and the fruits (or berries) appear from October to May with Mid-March to mid-May being the best time to sow the seed, making sure to brake the outer coating and allowing the sticky contents to help the seed adhere to the bark of the host tree.

Mistletoe is a parasite, all be it a partial one, taking water and minerals from the host tree and this weakens the tree. Infected apples trees will yield between 7% and 56% less depending on how vigorous the rootstock is, with the plants growing on the more vigorous rootstocks affected the least. Once established the Mistletoe shoot doesn’t divide for the first 3 or 4 years then each year the shoot divides in two, ultimately reaching about 1 metre across, so giving a very rough and ready guide to its age.

 

Prunus laurocerasus

Prunus laurocerasus foliage
Prunus laurocerasus foliage

The cherry laurel is one of the most widely planted screening plants in gardens having reached western Europe by the end of the 16th century and is recorded in cultivation in Britain in the 17th century. It has been cultivated that extensively its geographical origins seem to be a little hazy but would appear to stretch from the east coast of the Adriatic sea eastwards along the south coast of the Black seas as far as the Caspian sea.

It is hard now to appreciate the effect that this plants arrival would have had in western gardens at the time of its arrival. Gardens at the time would have had very few evergreen bushes and along comes this large vigorous bush with its mass of large smooth shiny evergreen leaves. Added to this is the masses of white flower spikes in late spring and the small black fruits in autumn. Few plants offer such a range of attractive features. Sadly now it has been relegated to being a plant of little garden value.

Prunus laurocerasus flowers
Prunus laurocerasus flowers

This is in part because we have so many more plants to choose from now but also it has been a victim of its own success. It has been over planted in the past because of its appeal as a fast growing evergreen leading it to being used where a fast evergreen hedge is wanted’ a role it isn’t really suited to. Its large leaves look tatty and unattractive when it is cut with shears or a hedge cutter and it should really be cut back with secateurs. If you must have an inappropriately fast growing hedge you are better with × Cupressocyparis leylandii. On the rare occasions it is allowed to grow unmolested it makes a fine large flowering shrub in a large garden. Unfortunately it most often ends up crammed into far too small a space with its hacked leaves blacked at the cut edges. I have seen examples of people trying to grow it as a 600 mm high by 300mm wide hedge, something such a large and large leaved plant will never do successfully and which there are far more appropriate plants for.

Prunus laurocerasus 'Castlewellan'
Prunus laurocerasus ‘Castlewellan’

In most cases the form Prunus laurocerasus ‘Rotundifolia’ is grown in place of Prunus laurocerasus having leaves half as broad as long and a yellower green than the species. Other cultivars of note are Prunus laurocerasus ‘Castlewellan’ (syn. P. ‘Marble White’) a less vigorous plant with white marbled leaves, Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’ )a low shrub with upward pointing leaves and stems and Prunus laurocerasus ‘Zabeliana’ a low horizontally branching shrub which makes excellent ground cover even under the dripping shade of trees.

Prunus laurocerasus fruit
Prunus laurocerasus fruit

Along the way it acquired a variety of names until Linneaus set it as Prunus laurocerasus L. in the 1753 in the first volume of Species Plantarum. Prunus is the Latin for a plum tree which is in the genus and laurocerasus comes from laurel, the Latin for laurel, and cerasus, the Latin for cherry. This and the common name reflect the small round black fruits which resemble cherries. These cherry like fruits or their common name of cherry laurel should not lead you to believe the plant is in any way edible. All of the plant is poisonous and the reason you do not hear of people being poisoned by it is because you will be very ill before you have chance to eat sufficient to poison yourself. These poisonous chemicals are also the ones which produce the almond smell from the crushed leaves. That said this has not stopped people from trying to use it as a quack medicine. Laurel water was used for various treatments but is basically a solution of hydrogen cyanide of varying concentration and so extremely dangerous.

Aesculus hippocastanum

Aesculus hippocastanum flower
Aesculus hippocastanum flower

The Horse Chestnut tree immediately brings to mind the quintessential English village green with its broad spreading canopy, masses of white summer flowers and autumn games of conkers. In reality this is a plant which contradicts itself at every turn. Originally coming from the Balkans Peninsula (the bit that hangs down to the right of Italy with Greece hanging on the bottom) it was unknown outside of the region until the 16th century. The first written reference to it was in a 1557 letter from Istanbul by the wonderfully named Willem Quackelbeen. A description of the plants discovery and rediscovery by Professor H. Walter Lack can be found here . Even when first introduced it was believed to be from Asia and the first botanist to claim to have found the plant growing wild in the Balkans was disbelieved. In France its common name is still Marronier d’Inde which literally translates as Chestnut of India. The English Horse Chestnut comes from the belief that it could be used to treat horses, though it is actually poisonous to them, and that it was a close relative of the edible Sweet Chestnut, though all parts of the plant are poison to humans. In fact A. hippocastanum L. is only distantly related to the Sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa Mill.) with taxonomists placing them in separate orders.

Aesculus hippocastanum
Aesculus hippocastanum

So as well as not been a chestnut A. hippocastanum L. does not produce nuts, the conkers loved by generations of school-children are seeds and the spiky case they are found in, the actual fruit, is a “valvate capsule”! The scientific name is little better Linnaeus chose Aesculus as the genus name but it is the Latin name for a kind of Oak which bears edible fruits and the specific name hippocastanum comes from the Greek name for the plant hippocastanon with Greek for horse ίππος is pronounced “hippos.

The rapid A. hippocastanum L. spread across western Europe following its introduction and its continued popularity are testament to its value as an ornamental tree as it is of very little commercial value; it is poisonous and the wood is little used. This is soft, not very durable and difficult to give a good finish to. In the wild it is a short lived component of mixed hardwood woodland and only in cultivation is it allowed to grow to an impressive sizes of over 30m forming a wide dense canopy of leaves.

Aesculus hippocastanum young flowers and foliage
Aesculus hippocastanum young flowers and foliage

The tree is easily grown in normal garden soils but it does need a lot of space. Since 2000 the disease bleeding canker has become a wide spread problem but it appears to progress slowly and given time trees do appear to recover from it. The main problem with the disease is that it can weaken all or part of the tree and so cause a danger in that way.

Aesculus hippocastanum fruit
Aesculus hippocastanum fruit

A number of cultivars are available including Aesculus hippocastanum ‘Baumannii’ which is sterile so preventing the problem of conkers. There is also a red hybrid Aesculus x carnea which you see planted but it rarely lives up to expectation and the improved cultivar  Aesculus x carnea ‘Briotii’ should be chosen if a red chestnut is wanted.

Actinidia kolomikta

Actinidia kolomikta foliage
Actinidia kolomikta foliage

This beautiful wall shrub deserves to be far more widely grown yet currently only about 53 suppliers are listed in the RHS plant finder. This is surprising as few other wall grown plants provide such an attractive display for so long. The foliage opens green but quickly develops a white and pink variegation as if they had been dipped in pots of white and pink paint. This variegation only develops in the presence of plenty of sunlight and along with the shrubs scrambling habit means it is always seen grown against a south facing wall, although I can imagine it would also be very attractive scrambling over a south facing bank.

Actinidia kolomikta growing against a wall
Actinidia kolomikta growing against a wall

It’s white, slightly fragrant, summer flowers are over shadowed by the foliage and as it is both dioecious and it is only the male plant which appears to be in cultivation you are unlikely to see the fruits which are said to be edible. The closely related A. deliciosa (A.Chev.) C.F.Liang & A.R.Ferguson which is better known as the kiwi Fruit and several of the 100+ species of Actinidia Lindl. are cultivated commercially for their fruit.

Actinidia kolomikta (Rupr. & Maxim.) Maxim. is easy to grow not being particularly fussy as to soil type and vigorous, reaching up to 4.5 to 6 metres up a wall. They are reasonable easy to propagate by cuttings or layering and are perfectly hardy.

Actinidia kolomikta grown as a shrub
Actinidia kolomikta grown as a shrub

First described by Carl Johann Maximowicz and Franz Josef Ruprecht two botanist working in Saint Petersburg in the 19th century; they initially placed the plant in the genus Prunus but subsequently both revised their decision and Maximowicz placed it in the genus Actinidia created by the British botanist John Lindley which he named after the Greek for ray because of the styles in the flowers. The plant is native to the region of Amur in Russia where it is known as kolomikta and Maximowicz described the plant growing wild in his 1859 book Primitiae Florae Amurensis (Beginnings of an Amor Flora). Amur Oblast is still a largely remote region with temperatures that can range from above 30°C in summer to below -40°C in winter.

Dicksonia antarctica

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs one of the most popular examples of this fascinating and fashionable group of plants, it is seen more and more available for sale. Appearing like a fern on top of a short trunk its slow rate of growth is reflected in its relatively high price. There is a lot of confusion over its hardiness with some saying it is only hardy in the mildest areas of the UK while others, including Kew, say its foliage is hardy down to -2°C but the plant itself is hardy down to -10°C. Part of this may be expectation as it is only found in the tropical regions of the southern hemisphere, but may also reflect the location a particular plant has been collected from as it is found at up to 1000m above sea level where plants would be expected to be more cold tolerant. With that in mind, and considering the cost of the plants it may be as well to adopt a cautious approach as frost below -10°C are not unknown in most parts of the UK and provide some frost protection. This is commonly achieved by wrapping the plants in horticultural fleece or straw secured with chicken wire.

Dicksonia antarctica
Dicksonia antarctica

Dicksonia Antarctica Labill. Thrives in cool damp situations: given time and the right conditions it can achieve a 3 metre trunk and 2.5 metre long fronds. To do well it needs plenty of water and given enough water it is quite tolerant of exposure to sun. As you might expect from its natural habitat it does best in a humus rich acid loam but it is quite capable of growing in most soils, even poorly drained ones. There slow rate of grow makes them very suitable a pot plants, which allows them to be moved indoors in cold weather, but they do resent being pot bound. The strange structure of the trunks means the top of a tree fern can be cut off and will regrow if being planted; but the lower potion will not as it is composed of dead material.

The extant species of tree ferns are a remnant of a far greater group which helped lay

Dicksonia antarctica trunk cross section
Dicksonia antarctica trunk cross section

down the coal seams mined today. They do not form a taxonomic group as such and the term only refers to any tree with a wood like trunk raising the fronds off the ground. In UK gardens Dicksonia Antarctica Labill.is the species most commonly found and as originally described by Jacques J.H. de Labillardière. M. Labillardière published his description in the second volume of his to volume Novae Hollandiae Plantarum Specimen, which was the first flora published of Australia (or New Holland as it was then known). The journey from Australia to the floras publication in 1806 was anything but straight forward. Labillardière was a naturalist attached to the expedition the French sent out to find what had happened to the expedition lead by Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse. They failed to find the lost expedition but did explore parts of Australia, New Zealand and surrounding islands. While they were away The French Revolutionary wars were causing upheaval in Europe and on reaching Java the expeditions scientific collections were seized by the British. It was only by appealing through influential British contacts that he was able to secure their return and so publish their descriptions.

References:

Dicksonia trunk showing aboriginal carving
Dicksonia trunk showing aboriginal carving

http://www.kew.org/plants-fungi/Dicksonia-antarctica.htm

Encyclopaedia of Ferns by David L. Jones

Hardy Garden Plants (3rd Edition) by Graham Stuart Thomas

http://www.forestferns.co.uk/

‘The International Plant Names Index (2012). Published on the Internet http://www.ipni.org [accessed 24 June 2013]

Novae Hollandiae Plantarum Specimen by Jacques J.H. de Labillardière

Clematis tangutica

Clematis tangutica flowers.
Clematis tangutica flowers.

This charming clematis spices is quite different from the large flowered cultivars usually grown in gardens. The small pixie hat flowers make up for their small size by their numbers which appear from June through into autumn when they can be seen with typical feathery clematis seed heads.  While not as showy as the large flowered cultivars Clematis tangutica (Maxim.)Korch. is a lot less demanding than these tend to be. Like all clematis any reasonable garden soil and aspect is suitable and the small flowers and dense foliage make it more successful in exposed locations where the large flowered cultivars would be pull apart by the wind.

Clematis tangutica
Clematis tangutica

Its vigorous, dense foliage makes it an excellent choice of covering walls and fences. It will reach 4.5 m to 5 m but is not as vigorous as Clematis Montana which tends to rapidly smooth whatever it is intended to grow over. Left to their own devices it will grow quiet happily un-pruned but it can appear untidy. Alternatively they can be cut back as hard as needed in winter though this will delay the start of flowering the following year.

The inside of a Clematis tangutica flower.
The inside of a Clematis tangutica flower.

C. tangutica is very similar to C. orientalis L., the clematis grower Christopher Lloyd admitted he at times struggled to tell the two apart. The main distinguishing feature is that C. orientais has narrower leaves. Originally C.tangutica was classified in 1889 as a variety of C. orientais  by Carl Maximowicz a Russian botanist who travelled widely in the orient. Subsequently Sergei Korshinsky another Russian botanist placed it in a species of its own in 1898. It first reached the UK from St. Petersburg in 1898, but has since been reintroduced from its native habitat in Mongolia and North West China.

Reference:

Species Plantarum by Carl Linnaeus

Hillers Manual of Trees and Shrubs

http://www.tropicos.org/Name/27101612

Clematis by Christopher Lloyd

The Well-Tempered Garden by Christopher Lloyd

Castanea sativa

Castanea sativa
Castanea sativa

The Sweet (or Spanish) Chestnut (Castanea sativa Mill.) is probably most know for its edible nuts, traditionally eaten around Christmas time, but in fact it makes a very fine large tree. Clothed in thick glossy leaves, tolerant of a wide range of soil types and relatively free of disease it has been extensively planted through the British Isles. Its quick growth and large size limits its use in all but the largest gardens when grown as a tree, but its success as a coppiced tree would allow the more ornamental forms to be more wildly grown. At present these are not widely grown but Castanea saliva ‘Albomarginata’ is a very attractive form with creamy white edged leaves and C. ‘ Aspleniifolia’ is a vary rare form with the serrated edges of the leaves drawn out into fine filaments.

Castanea sativa 'Albomarginata' foliage
Castanea sativa ‘Albomarginata’ foliage

It is believed that the tree was introduced by the Romans who ate the nuts but in practice the tree fails to provide a crop of edible nuts in all but the warmest parts of the UK. Globally though about 500,000 tonnes of chestnuts are produced annually, about half in the Far East. In France the best nuts are sold as marron and in Italy marron may refer to a cultivar of C. sativa which yields fewer high quality nuts. Though Castanea is only represented by C. sativa in cultivation in the UK the genus is quiet large and widely distributed with several hybrids and cultivars being actively studied because of its economic importance. Of lesser importance is the timber of Castanea due to its tendency to warp and split but its durability in contact with water has long been known and has made it a preferred wood for stakes.

Castanea sativa foliage and youing fruits
Castanea sativa foliage and youing fruits

Its scientific name dates from the 8th edition of Philip Miller’s Gardener’s Dictionary published in 1768 when he updated it to bring it into line with the Linnaeus system of plant names. He did though take the sweet chestnut back out of the beech genus, that Linnaeus had merged it into, arguing that the male catkins of Castanea are long and those of beech are globular. Castanea is Latin for chestnut while sativa comes from the Latin for cultivated. It is claimed that castanea itself comes from the Greek κάστανα meaning chestnut and a large number of Greek words where borrowed by Latin.

Castanea sativa bark
Castanea sativa bark

References:

Species Plantarum by Carl Linnaeus

Hillers Manual of Trees and Shrubs

Excursion flora of the British Isles by Clapham et al

Inventory of Chestnut Research, Germplasm And References, FAO http://www.fao.org/DOCREP/006/AD235E/AD235E00.HTM [accessed 30th January 2013]

http://apps.kew.org/trees/?page_id=85 [accessed 30th January 2013]

The Royal Horticultural Society Horticultural Database’, available at www.rhs.org.uk [accessed 30th January 2013]

Botanical Latin by William T. Stearn

Tropicos, botanical information system at the Missouri Botanical Garden – www.tropicos.org [accessed 30th January 2013]

Buddleja davidii

Buddleja davidii 'Burgundy'
Buddleja davidii ‘Burgundy’

Buddleja davidii Franch.is a popular garden shrub which has escaped cultivation to become established as a naturalised plant in the wild, where it can often be found on waste ground around towns and cities. It will grow happily in most garden soils and can even be seen growing out of cracks in masonry on buildings. It does prefer a sunny position as none of the buddlejas do well in shade. It grows well in even poor soil sending up long arching branches which are topped by the flowers in ranged in a cyme in late summer. Being a late flowering shrub it responds to early spring pruning and when pruned hard in March it produces far more flowers. These flowers give it its common name of butterfly bush as there strong scent is irresistible to butterflies.

Buddleja x weyeriana 'Honeycomb'
Buddleja x weyeriana ‘Honeycomb’

Its ease of cultivation and natural variability has lead to a host of named varieties being selected and introduced varying from white through to purples and very dark blues. The RHS plant finder currently lists 121 different ones, including some which are forms of Buddleja x weyeriana – a hybrid between B. davidii and B. globosa.

The genus Buddleja L. was named by Carl Linnaeus in ‘Species Plantarum’, naming it after the Reverend Adam Buddle but of reasons unknown he spelt it with a “j” when strictly speaking it should be spelt with an “i”. This has lead to considerable confusion over the

Buddleja davidii 'Harlequin'
Buddleja davidii ‘Harlequin’

years but as he repeatedly spelt it this way that is how it should be spelt. The only Buddleja known to Linnaeus was B. Americana L.which William Houstoun had sent back to Europe from the Americas and even then the spelling was causing confusion as in one of his illustrations he spelt it incorrectly both times even though he attributes the naming to Linnaeus. The species B. davidii itself was first sent back to Europe from China by the French Catholic missionary Armand David having found it in  August of 1869 and  Adrien René Franchet working in the herbarium of the natural history museum in Paris published a description of it in 1887 naming it in after the discoverer.

Buddleja davadii 'White Profusion'
Buddleja davadii ‘White Profusion’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References:

Species Plantarum by Carl Linnaeus

Hillers Manual of Trees and Shrubs

Excursion flora of the British Isles by Clapham et al

Nouvelles Archives Du Muséum D’Histoire Naturelle series 2

Reliquiae Houstounianae sive Plantarum in America meridionale … Collectarum Icones by William Hostoun

The International Plant Names Index (2012). Published on the Internet http://www.ipni.org [accessed 12th December  2012]

Tropicos, botanical information system at the Missouri Botanical Garden – www.tropicos.org [accessed 12th December  2012]

The Royal Horticultural Society Horticultural Database’, available at www.rhs.org.uk [accessed 12th December  2012]

Taxus baccata

Yew hedge at Warwick
Yew hedge at Warwick

The Yew tree is an easily recognisable plant of gardens and the countryside, being one of the few native British plants to be widely grown as an ornamental plant. It is a very adaptable plant growing in most situations with the exception of water logged ground and it responds very well to cutting. This, with its dense evergreen foliage has made a very popular material for hedging and topiary. It is also said it is slow growth is an advantage as it reduces the amount of cutting needed but it is not nearly as slow as is sometimes made out. Young plants can make 20 to 30 cm of growth a year; only slowing with age, as we all do!

Taxus baccata foliage
Taxus baccata foliage

Many selections have been made of Yew including fastigiated and variegated ones but it is still at its most impressive as a green hedge where it does an excellent job of defining spaces and providing a foil to the more colourful occupants of the garden. If planting it as a hedge make sure to prepare the site well, necessary with any hedge, and make sure the soil drains freely; even if this means installing drainage. Its dense evergreen foliage forms a very long lived hedge even in the shade and it has been said a yew hedge has a longer working life than a brick wall. The other advantage over a brick wall is its adaptability; creating a new opening in a wall is difficult and will always show up while with a yew hedge a saw and hedge clippers is all that is needed. Once the new opening is made the plants will soon break away as it happily forms new shoots from the old wood and so heal the wound made.

Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata'
Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’

It is remarkably good at growing away from old wood, I’ve seen yew trees cut down to ground level and shoot away from the stump. Hawthorn is the only other plant I know with such a strong regenerative ability. This is a very un-conifer like characteristic, but yews are not very conifer like though there appears know doubt that it should be classed as one.

Though now the yews are seen mainly as garden plants; it has been an important plant to humans for a long time. The Yew combines great long levity with a valuable wood which was prized was making bows, the most valuable weapon for most of human history. The ancient Greeks called the yew τόξο (or toxo) and the Romans called the yew taxus. As with any plant with such an important and long history with humanity a lot of superstitions have grown up around it, and this can be seen in its importance to druids and its presence in church yards. The Fortingall Yew at over 2000 years old is believed to be the oldest tree in Britian and grows in the churchyard of the village Fortingall in Perthshire.

Taxus baccata 'Elegantissima'
Taxus baccata ‘Elegantissima’

In 1753 Linnaeus named the Yew Taxus baccata L. in the second volume of “Species plantarum” the Taxus from the Latin for yew and the baccata from the Latin for berry after the distinctive red fleshy arils which enclose the black seed and look like berries.  It is only this red fleshy fruit-like part of the yew which is not poisonous as all other parts of the plants can kill humans if sufficient is eaten. Yew exists as separate male and female plants and so these colourful arils are only found on the female plants. The species Taxus baccata can be found as both male and female plants its cultivars will be only one sex and this should be considered when choosing one.