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The Independent Online
THE YEW, revered by Druids and appropriated by Christians, was always a feature of sacred sites. This evergreen lives longer than any other British tree, and it is now accepted that some churchyard yews may be more than 1,000 years old. The ancient dusty drooping yew in the corner of the graveyard does not appear to be a first choice for any garden, except the spooky gothic sort. But there is another way of looking at yews. Clipped into fat billows they turn from a threat into a comfort. A line of yews can be a solid presence in the winter garden, creating walls to hold the weather at bay. Dark green rooms with the sky for a ceiling provide a lovely shelter from the wind, and if these places are planted with scented flowers the hedges will keep the scent from escaping beyond their walls.

A single bush of yew can be turned into a green sculpture. Topiary, the art of clipping bushes into shapes, is immensely satisfying. The more you clip, the more the bushes fatten into stiff bulges that the wind cannot move and it does not take at all long for them to become reassuring objects. Pyramids, cottage loaves, enormous globes, peacocks, obelisks, huts; you can watch whatever you fancy grow up within the space of a decade.

Yew occurs naturally on limestone but does not demand an acid-free soil. What it does like is good drainage. Planted in sticky clay that is damp in the winter months, most yews will sicken. Given the right treatment they should grow a foot a year. There is little to be gained from planting large specimens; smaller ones quickly catch them up and need less cosseting in the early years. A well prepared trench with plenty of compost and a handful of bonemeal gives them a good start. A twice-yearly tonic of dried blood in early spring and midsummer will make them grow fast and strong. Wind on young plants can cause them to turn brown but they soon recover.

I have heard recent complaints of a yew virus that seems to be a feature of imported stock from Holland, but I have no direct experience of it in the yards of yew planted here. Most of the outbreaks reported appear to have been planted on damp, heavy soils.

The cheapest and best yew plants will probably be found field-grown in nurseries which specialise in selling trees and shrubs from the open ground. Potted plants are more likely to have been imported from Holland and larger ones from Italy. A semi-fastigiate form, "Hicksii", is available in large sizes, but never makes a good hedge or topiary specimen.

If green yews seem too solemn, golden forms are available. The columnar Irish yew Taxus "Fastigiata" comes in a gold version. This was very popular with the Victorians. The sunniest of the golden yews is the form called "Semperaurea", which grows much wider than it does high, so it is particularly good for clipping into huge domes.

In any article about yew it has to be admitted that its leaves, particularly when they are clipped and left lying on the ground, are poisonous to animals, so it should not be used as a boundary hedge next to a field where animals graze. The berries are always said to be poisonous, but the outer red flesh is often eaten by birds and children have also been known to survive it. It is the small hard seed at the centre of the fruit which is toxic.