The yew is a plant of legend. Besides figuring prominently in myth as a magical wood and source of fine bows, it was known as the tree of life because it grows slowly and often lives to extraordinary ages. One yew tree in a Welsh churchyard is thought to be more than 4,000 years old! Yet, how can you tell when a tree is a yew? True yews belong to the scientific genus Taxus. Other plants may be called yews, but they are not members of this genus. Several species of yews exist, and they can be identified based on their needles, size, berry color, and location.
Examine a branch. Notice the length and color of the needles. Yews are evergreen plants with needles instead of leaves. If the plant you're looking at has leaves, it is not a yew. Yew needles are shorter than pine needles, ranging from less than an inch long to about an inch and a quarter. They are flat, and usually are darker green on the top than on the bottom in the common (or English) (Taxus baccata) and Japanese yew (T. cuspidata), and grayish green in the Pacific yew (T. brevifolia). The yew's needles lie on either side of the stem, but they grow in a spiral from one end of the branch to the other.
Estimate the height of the plant. If the plant is short and shrubby, although it is full grown, it may be a Canadian yew (T. canadensis). The Canadian species reach a maximum height of five feet.
Other yew species grow much taller, more than 10 feet in height. Mature common yews stand 30 to 50 feet tall and may be 20 feet wide, although short, shrub-like individuals are found.Older specimens may exhibit a unique structure in which the branches have grown downward, rooted into the ground, and become, essentially, another plant. This quality contributed to the yew's reputation as the ever-living tree among ancient cultures.
Japanese yews stand between 10 and 40 feet in height and may be as wide as they are tall. Pacific yews can grow to heights of 40 feet. Florida yews (T. floridana) stand between 20 and 30 feet.
Examine the bark. The bark of the yew is reddish-brown, tending toward purple in the Florida yew. Japanese yews have scaly bark, while common yews have furrowed, flaky bark.
Study the flowers, catkins and berries if possible. Male yews form small catkins in early spring, which give off pollen that fertilize the flowers on the female plants. Yellow flowers indicate that the female plant is either a common, Japanese, or Canadian yew.
In September, most female yews bear round, red berries, although Pacific yews produce brown berries. Each berry has an indentation on the flower end of the berry. Inside the berry is a single, poisonous seed.
Determine your location if you want to identify the species of yew. This will be helpful for some North American species; however, common and Japanese yews have been imported to the United States.
The common yew is native to Europe, where it can be found from Great Britain to Northern Africa. The Japanese yew is native to Japan, China and Korea. Both these species have been imported to the United States for use in gardens and landscaping. The Japanese yew is considered an invasive species in the United States and can be found in young forests and woodlots from Massachusetts to Kentucky.
The Pacific yew is native to Alaska, western Canada and several western states. The Canadian yew is native to Canada, from Manitoba eastward, and the United States from Minnesota and Iowa to the eastern seaboard south to North Carolina. The rare Florida yew is found only along the Appalachicola River in the Florida panhandle.