By Thanksgiving, the landscape can look pretty barren; but this can also be a time when plants with winter interest begin to stand out. Evergreens are in that category, and yews are among the most popular evergreens in landscapes.

Yews belong to the genus Taxus. Most common in landscapes are T. baccata, the English or common yew; T. cuspidata, the Japanese yew; and T. x media, a cross between the English and Japanese yew. The latter two are hardy to Zone 4, while most English yew cultivars are Zone 6 plants, so are limited in their use in Maine landscapes, so far.

Native to Maine is T. canadensis, commonly called the Canadian, Canada or American yew, or ground hemlock. This one’s hardy to Zone 2 and is found mostly as an understory plant in forests. It’s on lists of Maine plants recommended for native landscapes, but the Japanese and hybrid yews are more versatile and more common in landscapes.

More common to the point of being overused, in fact, as foundation plants and hedges; but I still think yews can be beautiful in mixed shrub plantings, and even in flower gardens, where their deep green foliage can provide contrast and a backdrop for the more colorful annuals and perennials, as well as year-round structure for the garden.

Perhaps yews stand out as being overused because of their tolerance to shearing.

“The tight pruning results in the formation of green meatballs, cubes, rectangles, and other odd shapes,” said Michael Dirr in his “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants.” He adds that, “more interesting and attractive plants will result from pruning rather than shearing to retain the natural habit and appearance of the cultivar.”

This is how I tend the few yews in my landscape: by lightly pruning them back with clippers so that they look more natural in a planting that also includes eastern red cedars and a bird’s nest spruce.

Even though Dirr slights the Canada yew as being a “very straggly shrub compared to other yew types,” I’ve seen some young plants in the woods in Quebec where they looked lovely, like delicate emeralds of the forest, so I think they can be useful in woodland gardens.

This species has become economically important because it contains paclitaxel, used to treat breast, lung, ovarian and other cancers. Previously the Pacific yew (T. brevifolia) was the only source of this compound, so it was overharvested to the point of being endangered.

While paclitaxel may save lives when used therapeutically and under medical supervision, this and other taxanes in yews can also be deadly. All parts of the plant, except the fleshy red aril that covers the seeds, are toxic to humans and livestock, including horses, cattle and sheep. While the arils are edible, the seed inside is not, so most sources suggest not eating the arils, to be on the safe side. Ewes and yous should not eat yews.

Birds, including ruffed grouse, cedar waxwings and robins, do eat the arils with seeds enclosed, but pass the seeds intact and are not poisoned by them. These birds are the primary dispersers of yew seed in the wild.

Canada and other yews are favorite browse foods of deer and moose, which can break down the toxic taxanes. These animals are so fond of yew that they have decimated some wild populations of Canada yew and can make growing yews in a home landscape difficult, but at least they don’t prune the shrubs into unnatural geometric shapes!