I’d like to introduce you to a different kind of evergreen groundcover that may fill a niche in your landscape. If you are originally from more northern parts of the U.S., you are no doubt familiar with the common evergreen shrub known as Yew (Taxus), which does not fare well in our area. Similar in appearance, but much more tolerant of our southern heat is Japanese Plum Yew (Cephalotaxus). This is a great plant that deserves wider use in the South.
Plum yews have feathery, dark evergreen, needle-like leaves, which provide a nice contrast to the foliage of other more commonly used shrubs with larger, rounded leaves. The new spring growth is a much lighter green, providing a nice contrast to the older dark-green foliage. Besides being heat tolerant, once established they are pretty drought tolerant, though they will always do better when irrigated during dry times.
Another asset is Japanese Plum Yew does very well in the shade under trees, tolerating light conditions from full to partial shade. And, it is reported to not be favored by deer.
There are several forms of Cephalotaxus, from upright to vase-like growth patterns. One of the more popular forms is the Spreading Japanese Plum Yew (Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Prostrata’). It makes a nice ground cover, growing about 2 feet tall and 4 to 6 feet wide. Occasional stray branches are easily pruned out. Great for massing or for an accent plant.
Spreading Japanese Plum Yew, like others C. harringtonia cultivars, is rather slow growing at first, but once established will make a wonderful display after a few years. It is a great substitute for spreading junipers and low-growing hollies.
If you’d like to see it in action, a good example is located in the southern-most section of the IDEA Garden (which is in the Tyler Rose Garden). Planted along the sidewalk in 2001, it has always attracted attention and comments. The Stephen F. Austin Mast Arboretum in Nacogdoches has a great collection of Cephalotaxus varieties in the Ruby Mize Azalea Garden, growing in complete shade under tall pine and deciduous trees.