Ohio State University Research/Extension Bulletin

Taxus and Taxol - A Compilation of Research Findings

Special Circular 150-99


A History of Yews in the United States

Kenneth D. Cochran,
Secrest Arboretum,
The Ohio State University,
Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center,
and The Ohio State University Agricultural Technical Institute,
Wooster, Ohio.

Introduction of the genus Taxus for ornamental horticulture in the United States appears to have begun with the seedling production work of Theophilus D. Hatfield, when he was the second head gardener at the Hunnewell Estate, Wellesley, Massachusetts (Shugert, 1985). Hatfield, born in Cottingham, Hull, Yorkshire, England, 1855, had a thorough training in gardening through noted horticulture establishments in Europe, including Kew Gardens (where Taxus baccata was growing), before he served as gardener to successive members of the well-known Hunnewell family (Craig, 1929).

Hatfield became well-acquainted with the species Taxus cuspidata and its Japanese variety Taxus cuspidata var. nana, as they were growing on the Hunnewell Estate. Dr. George R. Hall of Warren, Rhode Island, a missionary to Japan, imported these plants into America from Japan in 1862. Hall introduced the plants to the nursery trade through the Parsons Nursery at Flushing, Long Island, New York. Hatfield reported that the spreading varieties Taxus cuspidata var. nana and Taxus cuspidata var. brevifolia (later given the cultivar name 'Densa') were the first varieties to become popular in the nursery trade. They were followed by the upright-growing nursery form Taxus cuspidata var. capitata (Hatfield 1921, Hatfield 1929). These became quite plentiful and were eventually reproduced from cutting propagation.

Around 1904, Hatfield began a series of experiments raising yews from seed. In a propagation paper presented in 1929 entitled Yews, Hatfield indicated that the seedlings raised were probably a cross of the English (European) and Japanese types. No intentional crossing was reported. Taxus baccata had not been permanently cold hardy (following various winters) in upper Midwestern and northeastern U.S. landscapes (USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 5). Hatfield reported that when most Taxus baccata were planted, they would look good for a while, but after a few years of winter injury, they would look disgusting, especially due to browning of the foliage in winter. An exception was the procumbent form Taxus baccata 'Repandens,' which was often buried below the snow line.

Hatfield reported in 1929 that of the original English yews (Taxus baccata) that had been grown at the Hunnewell Estate, only one or two forms were in a presentable condition. While they grew well for a few years, an unusually severe winter would burn the south-facing side of the plant and otherwise disfigure them. Seedlings of Taxus baccata var. fastigiata, the Irish yew, took on the fastigiate form characteristic of the variety, and some proved perfectly hardy.

About the same time that Hatfield was growing seedlings at Wesley, nurseryman Henry Hicks of Westbury, Long Island, New York, was growing seedlings at his Long Island nursery. Henry was a crusader for yews for American gardens. Popularizing the Japanese yew was one of the achievements of the Hicks Nurseries, Inc. He thought that yews were fine plants as he had seen many beautiful specimens at the Dane Arboretum, Glen Cove, Long Island. In a 1924 Hicks Nursery catalog, Henry reported that a new selection, Taxus x media 'Hicksii,' obtained from a 1902 seed collection at the Dane Arboretum, was available for the first time.

The Hicks yew became a remarkable plant and has been propagated and distributed in great quantity all over the world. It made a definite hit with landscape architects. It became a substitute for the red cedar that was the standard for landscape hedges prior to 1920 (Cochran, 1991). For six decades, this selection has been the pick of the upright yews. 'Hicksii' is known as a female selection. Among Hicks' seedling plants, C. S. Sargent identified a male plant that L. C. Chadwick named Taxus x media 'Costich' (Chadwick and Keen, 1976). The author confirmed the original plant of 'Costich' as it was growing at the Hicks nursery in 1991, but the original 'Hicksii' no longer exists. Henry's daughter, Ester Emory, reported to this author in 1991 that "Father" would not plant the fruiting Hicks yew in landscapes where there were children, because he knew the seeds were poisonous. The Hicks nursery never used the name 'Costich;' they just called one yew a female 'Hicksii' and the other a male 'Hicksii' (Cochran, 1991).

Yews have been the most popular narrow-leaved evergreen landscape plants of the second half of the 20th Century in the North- eastern and the upper Midwestern United States. As Chadwick reported in an interview with this author prior to his death in 1993, "It is a good plant, dark green and hardy; there is no other plant like it" (Cochran, 1992). Its use in gardens for centuries has given it an unrivaled reputation. Chadwick and Keen's publication, The Study of the Genus Taxus (OARDC Research Bulletin 1086), their research work, the development of the Chadwick Living Herbarium of Taxus at the Secrest Arboretum on the campus of The Ohio State University/Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, Wooster, Ohio, and Chadwick's many lectures on the merits of Taxus have greatly furthered the marketing of Taxus through nurseries. Many landscape nurserymen think that yews are among the best of ornamental plants. They are serviceable the year around for the landscape as dark evergreen masses of foliage.

Low-profile plants for foundation, facing, low hedging, and groundcover uses will be in even greater demand for landscapes of the 21st Century. There are now several selections of Taxus available to fill that need. Large- and medium-sized Taxus cultivars, including 'Hicksii,' should continue to be popular. The value of the Hicks yew for hedging and screening should remain. Yews should continue to be the backbone for gardens of the Northeastern and upper Midwestern United States. Nurserymen are presently geared up for their production.

References

Chadwick, L. C. and R. A. Keen. 1976. A study of the genus Taxus. Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Research Bulletin 1086.

Craig, W. N. 1929. In Memoriam, Theophilus D. Hatfield. American Plant Propagators Association.

Cochran, K. D. 1991. Interviews with Hicks family members - Alfred Hicks, grandson, and Ester Emory, daughter, of Henry Hicks.

Cochran, K. D. 1992. Interview with Dr. L. C. Chadwick at his home.

Hatfield, T. D. 1921. Raising yews from seed at Wellesley. The Garden Magazine 33:23-26.

Hatfield, T.D. 1929. Yews. American Plant Propagators Association. July 16.

Shugert, R. 1985. Taxus production in the U.S.A. Proc. Inter. Plant Prop. Soc. 35:149-153.


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