While folks from “up north” know yews (Taxus), they are far less likely to know its doppleganger, the false yew (Cephalotaxus). I’ve always considered the two fairly interchangable, so was fascinated when DNA showed they actually belong to different plant families, which aren’t really closely related…other than both being conifers. Taxus is now in its own family, Taxaceae, and Cephalotaxus now resides in its own family, Cephalotaxaceae. For most gardeners, the important thing to know is that deer will consume taxus, but not cephalotaxus.
Below are a few favorites from the JLBG gardens. Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Brooklyn Gardens’ is a much wider leaf plant than the better known Cephalotaxus ‘Duke Gardens’. Mature size of ‘Brooklyn Gardens’ is 2′ tall x 14′ wide, so it functions as an evergreen ground cover in either light shade or sun.
Our oldest plant of Cephalotaxus ‘Duke Gardens’ is now 27 years old, and measures 3′ tall x 12′ wide. Here it is growing in fairly deep shade.
Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Golden Dragon’ is a much smaller selection with bright golden foliage. Our five year old plants are 2′ tall x 4′ wide. The gold color only shows with a bit of sun.
I love my Cephalotaxus! My husband calls them the “Dr Seuss plant” because the new growth is a bright spring green color against the mature very deep green that looks just like the curving sprouts of hair on characters’ heads in Dr Seuss books. Most people grow it in shade because there aren’t many needled evergreens that thrive there, but it also has done very well for me in nearly full sun. I have extremely heavy deer pressure — the last month, deer are devouring my Loropetalum, Autumn and Cyrtomium ferns, Cyclamen, Epimedium, Distyllium, all things they’ve never touched before — and even this winter I’ve not had the slightest deer browse on any of my Cephalotaxus. It also comes in so many shapes and sizes, from very prostrate to lower shrubby to more upright, and various needle lengths. Cephalotaxus fortunei is one of my favorites, with super long needles and a large shrub-small tree size. Mine has multiple trunks. They also seem to be fairly drought resistant, in that once established, it’s one thing I haven’t needed to water in dry periods. The small green “plums” that they make, while sometimes a bit hidden in the foliage, are also attractive.