Conifers Pollination

Yew Suffering From a Sexual Identity Crisis

Hey, Taxus × media ‘Densiformis’! Are “yew” a male or a female? Photo: springmeadownursery.com

Question: Could you tell me if the hybrid yew ‘Densiformis’ (Taxus × media ‘Densiformis’) produces arils (berries)? While searching on the Internet, I found little information and much is contradictory. Some sources say the ‘Densiformis’ yew is a female cultivar, but none say whether it requires a male plant for pollination. Other sites say this cultivar does not produce fruit, but others suggest it produces a lot of arils! 

If you were able to clarify all of this, I would be very happy!

Alexandra Paré

Answer: There is nothing that looks so much like one yew (Taxus spp.) as another yew. Their correct identification is therefore very difficult and that results in a lot of confusion.

The “real” ‘Densiformis’ hybrid yew is a dense, spreading yew with dark green needles very popular in foundation plantings. It is indeed a female cultivar and yes, it does produce a quite a good crop of very attractive bright red arils, but only in the presence of a male yew.

Taxus × media with red berries.
The red berries (arils) of Taxus × media ‘Densiformis’. Photo: American Conifer Society

As the pollen is carried by the wind, the male can still be a certain distance away. However, the further away it is, the less reliable berry production will be. So, with female yews being used more often in landscaping than males, you often see ‘Densiformis’ hybrid yews that remain berriless for lack of any male nearby to pollinate them or, at least, that only rarely produce any berries (occasionally a female yew will sometimes produce an aril or two without pollination).

Taxus × media ‘Densiformis sans baies
Sold as Taxus × media ‘Densiformis’, this plant’s lack of berries could mean it’s an impostor… or just that there is no pollinator nearby. Photo: springmeadownursery.com

But in addition to that, there is a lot of confusion in horticultural circles and some yews sold under the name ‘Densiformis’ are actually male. It’s practically impossible to know which nursery sells the real ‘Densiformis’ (female) and which sells the impostor.

Ideally, if you want the real thing, therefore female, you’d look for a specimen that already bears at least one aril at the time of purchase. And if you want many red berries, be sure to plant a yew known to be male, like T. × media ‘Hillii’, not too far away, to act as a pollinator and thus ensure good fruiting.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

2 comments on “Yew Suffering From a Sexual Identity Crisis

  1. The ‘sterile’ pampas grass that was briefly popular in regions where pampas grass has a bad reputation is only sterile because it is all female. (I still do not get how that makes it sterile.) Unfortunately, it hybridizes freely with the more invasive Cortaderia jubata, and the hybrids are somehow not sterile!
    You probably heard about the all female date palms that were recycled from date orchards into landscapes without their studs. Yes, there were fabulous! (Females are more billowy and more appealing than males.) There were not expected to be messy without pollination. You can imagine what happened though. Yes, they got a date, a male date to be exact, in a nearby home landscape, . . . and he got around. (I am sure that it happens in more landscapes that what I have seen.) The females are not as productive as they were in their orchards, but can make a bit more mess than expected.

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