The yew is the most important ornamental conifer for England, chiefly because it is the longest-lived of all trees the English have. "The Fotheringal yew," says Miss Rogers, "proved by the rings on its stump that it had lived nearly three thousand years." It also has the following strong points: (i) It holds its lower branches better than any conifer I know, even when considerably crowded and shaded. (2) It stands clipping well and therefore makes a better hedge in Europe than any other conifer. (3) It is just the right height for a decorative tree, since anything over thirty feet high is out of proportion in a garden or on a lawn. (4) Its trunk symbolizes the relation between the mother country and her colonies and also between the classes in England, for it seems to say, "Socially we divide, politically we are one; in peace we scatter, in time of need we act together".
Elwes and Henry in their great work," The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland," state that the seeds and foliage of Japanese yew will probably prove poisonous.
But yew has one great drawback. It is poisonous, and therefore cannot J)e planted where cattle may nibble the foliage, for to eat a spray of it is to die. Consequently, yew is not conspicuous in the landscape, but it is in every one's home grounds; it hedges gardens; it makes stately avenues, as at Hampton Court; it lines walks of beautiful solemnity approaching many an exquisite church; and in the graveyard it is the ever-present symbol of immortality.
Unfortunately yew is a failure in America north of New York. It exists only in places protected in winter from strong wind and sunshine. Our native yew is what people call "ground hemlock" (Taxus Canadensis), a trailing bush which can be trained as a hedge but hardly as a tree. The real equivalent of the yew, as a lawn tree, is the Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata), because it forms a low, round-headed tree. It has the same red berries, showy in autumn. (Luckily yew berries are not poisonous*.) Moreover, the bark of the Japanese yew is redder and warmer than that of the English yew. The tree is not harmed by zero weather, drying winds, or sudden bursts of sunshine when the ground is frozen, and is hardy even in New England. Possibly it will become our national hedge plant, since it grows faster than trailing yew and holds its lower branches better than hemlock.
But even if Japanese yew should live for thousands of years in America it can never stir such emotions as the yew does in England for it is not native and it will always be a menace to life. If England had dozens of native conifers, as we have, the yew would be a mere incident. But England has practically only two native conifers — the yew and the Scotch pine. No wonder these two have become almost a part of the English character!
I am almost glad that English yew is a failure in America, because no country ought to copy any other; each should make the most of its own character. In the hemlock we have a tree with practically the same foliage-effect, which has strong American traits (see plate 60). The peculiar grace of both trees is produced by short, soft needles arranged in two ranks, but presenting the effect of a flat spray. Hemlock is not so enormously long-lived, it grows too tall for gardens, we must use more care to preserve its lower branches, especially in hedges, and its trunk is less interesting than that of yew. On the other hand, hemlock has a more delicate spray (owing to the shorter needles), and is not poisonous, so that we can plant it everywhere and by the million. Hemlock and white pine ought always to be the most prominent evergreens in the North and East, for the former is the best embodiment of the idea of grace among available conifers, while the latter best expresses the idea of strength.