Yew Suffering From a Sexual Identity Crisis

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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.