Cephalotaxus mannii 100108-0705

12 Interesting Facts About Cephalotaxus

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Cephalotaxus, commonly known as plum yews or cowtail pines, are a unique group of coniferous shrubs and trees in the Cephalotaxaceae family. Here are 12 fascinating facts about these unusual evergreens:

Cephalotaxus species are slow-growing plants native to eastern and southeastern Asia. Often used ornamentally, they can thrive in gardens and parks where deer browsing is an issue since most species contain poisonous alkaloids. Their leaves and seeds were also once used to make fabric dyes.

While not true yews like those in the Taxaceae family, plum yews share some similar characteristics. However, they also have their distinct qualities that set them apart. Read on to uncover more about these captivating conifers!

Cowtail Pine (Cephalotaxus harringtonia)
Cowtail Pine (Cephalotaxus harringtonia)

1. There Are Around 10 Species

The Cephalotaxus genus contains about 10 recognized species, though sources differ on the exact number. Most are shrubs or small trees that grow up to 13-66 feet tall. The three main species used horticulturally are:

  • Cephalotaxus harringtonia – the most widespread species, including two varieties
  • Cephalotaxus fortunei – Fortune’s plum yew
  • Cephalotaxus wilsoniana – Wilson’s plum yew

2. They Have Broad, Flattened Needles

Unlike many conifers, plum yews have short flattened needles instead of thin, pointed ones. The spirally arranged needles are typically 0.5-1 inch long. They emerge with a lovely reddish tinge before maturing to a lustrous, deep green.

3. Plum Yews Are Dioecious

This means each plant bears either male or female flowers, but not usually both. The small, spherical male cones shed clouds of yellow pollen in spring. Seed-bearing female cones have fleshy, plum-like coats, inspiring the common name.

4. The Seeds and Foliage Are Toxic

Nearly all Cephalotaxus contain toxic alkaloids like cephalotaxine and harringtonine. These chemicals can cause nausea, vomiting, and even paralysis or death if ingested, especially by grazing livestock. So while the shrubs make striking landscape specimens, caution is warranted.

5. They Grow Slowly

A distinguishing feature of plum yews is their very slow, irregular growth habit. Under ideal conditions, they may put on around 6-12 inches per year. But growth often occurs in fits and starts, making them poor choices for topiary or tight hedges.

6. Many Are Threatened in the Wild

Due to habitat loss and over-harvesting for traditional medicines, several Cephalotaxus species now have threatened conservation status. For example, the IUCN Red List categorizes C. oliveri as endangered and C. mannii as critically endangered.

7. They’re Deer Resistant

Since mule deer, white-tailed deer, and other browsing animals generally avoid plants containing toxins, plum yews make excellent deer-resistant landscaping. This can be a major perk where deer populations are high.

8. Plum Yews Tolerate Shade

While most conifers demand full sun, Cephalotaxus does surprisingly well in part to full shade. Slow growth under low light simply results in a more open, loose habit. Just ensure the soil remains evenly moist.

9. They Have Long Lifespans

Given their slow growth, plum yews are exceptionally long-lived plants. Some Japanese plum yews (C. harringtonia) have survived over 1,000 years! With minimal care, most species can thrive for centuries.

For those craving a tidier look, ‘Fastigiata’ offers densely packed upright growth habit. Other compact cultivars like ‘Duke Gardens’ and ‘Minima’ also make nice landscape accents. Most named varieties reach just 3-10 feet tall.

11. Plum Yews Work Well in Asian-Inspired Gardens

The elegant form and deep green needles of Cephalotaxus beautifully complement other Asian garden elements. Use them as tranquil background plants or focal points beside water features, pagodas, and weathered statuary.

12. They Have a Long History in Asian Medicine

Asian cultures have used various plum yew parts medicinally for over 1,500 years. However, clinical research is still needed to verify many traditional remedy claims. Their extreme toxicity means extracts must be skillfully prepared.


From their graceful silhouette to their storied history in Eastern medicine, plum yews offer intrigue at every turn. Their merits for low-maintenance and deer-resistant landscaping can’t be overstated either. Just be sure to plant them far from the reach of children and pets. With proper siting and care, Cephalotaxus species make superb additions to gardens across USDA zones 6-9.

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