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Plant of the Month: January 2005

Yew Pine
Podocarpus macrophyllus (Th.) Sw. 1818

= Podocarpus macrophyllus (Th.) D. Don 1824
= Podocarpus chinensis hort.
= Podocarpus longifolius hort. ex Sieb.
= Podocarpus longifolia hort.
= Podocarpus sinensis macrophylla hort.
= Taxus macrophylla Th. 1784
= (Podocarpus macrophylla)

PODOCARPACEÆ; Podocarp Family

    The genus Podocarpus is named from the Greek podos or pous, a foot, and karpos, a fruit. That translates foot-fruit --because of the swollen fleshy fruit-stalk of the species first described: the South African Podocarpus elongatus (Ait.) LÕHˇr. ex Pers. 1807.
    Currently, most botanists accept that there are 94 to 106 species in the genus Podocarpus. The genus is one of about 18 in the family PODOCARPACEÆ, depending on what botanist you ask. Chris Earle, on his Gymnosperm Database writes: "the PODOCARPACEÆ probably contain more species threatened by overcutting and habitat loss than any other family."
    This east Asian tree has at least nine English names besides Yew Pine: Yew Podocarp, Longleaf Podocarp, Japanese Podocarp, Disciples-of-Buddha Pine, Buddhist Pine, Swallow's-Tongue Pine, Pine Yew, Southern Yew, and Japanese Yew. (Some of these names surely refer mostly if not wholly to the entity I discuss at the end of this article.)
    A Chinese name is transliterated Lo-han-sung, and a Japanese name as Inu-Maki.
    Over the centuries there has been more than a little confusion as to name application. In the late 1800s and early 1900s one or more members of genus Cephalotaxus (commonly known as Plum Yew), was confused with this. And the name widely used for this in the southern United States --Japanese Yew-- is also applied generally to Taxus cuspidata.
    There is also uncertainty in contemporary plant nomenclature. Some sources cite Podocarpus macrophyllus while others prefer Podocarpus macrophylla. I believe the former is correct. And the proper naming authority combination is also disagreed on. Is it (Thunberg) Sweet 1818 or (Thunberg ex Murray) Sweet 1818 or (Thunberg) D. Don 1824? So far I have not had time to find out.
    The tree is native in China, S Japan, and the Ryukyus. In the wild it can grow as large as 82 feet tall (25 m) with a trunk 12.5 feet in circumference. The exact date of its introduction to Western cultivation is unknown, because a closely related species (treated below) has been utterly confused with it. However, surely sometime in the 1800s; no later than the 1860s.
    Giving information about its performance in the West is not easy, again because of confusion. I will state what I believe currently: As an ornamental, Yew Pine combines the realms of fine-textured conifers such as pines, with the bolder look of broad-leaved evergreens such as evergreen oaks. Its warm, red-brown bark contrasts pleasingly with its greenery. Its very lovely red fruits are an autumnal-winter delight --viewed up close.
    At least where it survives the winter cold, Yew Pine is of easy culture: tolerating sun or shade; very heat tolerant; it stands clipping well; it is good in containers; it can be an isolated tree, a shrub, or part of a hedge; it can get aphids but is largely pest free. It dislikes poor-draining soil. It needs irrigation in summer in the dry hot southwest, and prefers irrigation in the cool dry-summered Seattle where I live.
    The largest that I have measured on the West Coast is 28 feet tall, 49.5 feet wide, its trunk 5 feet 9.5 inches in circumference below branching, at Sacramento, California. A 1951 accession at the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle is still only about 13 feet tall. It grows in shade, surrounded by prickly barberry shrubs. Though female, it never ripens fruit, either for lack of pollen or because it gets insufficient heat units. The oldest and stoutest-trunked tree I know in Seattle is at the southwest corner of 17th Avenue East and East Mercer Street. It is female, but never ripens fruit. It has two trunks, the larger 7 inches in diameter. In 2001 it was topped --so the tenant living in the second story apartment could get more light through the window. Now it is 17.5 feet tall and 17 feet wide (see my photo below). The tallest in Seattle is at McGilvra Blvd. East & East Highland Drive, on the southeast corner, where two are west of the house, the taller over 20 feet (both replaced with birches in 2006 - 2007). There is a male 19.5 feet tall in a grove of 7 planted about 1990 on the University of Washington campus (the illustration below is from it a female 19.3 feet tall near it).
    In general Yew Pine is slow growing, and is at least as often as not treated as a mere shrub rather than a tree. It presents a soft texture to the eye. Its leaves are willowy, mostly 2.5 to 5 inches long by three-eighths of an inch wide, but up to 7 or 8 inches long by half an inch wide; the top is darker green and semi-glossy; beneath is paler and dull; the midrib is raised on both sides. The leaves are pliable rather than stiff, and thick and tough rather than delicate.
    Male and female flowers are usually on separate specimens (but self-fruitful or hermaphrodite clones are in circulation). Male flowers are 1.25 to 1.5 inch long erect soft yellow catkins in June. Female trees bear tiny inconspicuous floral organs that give rise to odd affairs consisting of a slender green stem, holding a swollen red lopsided yew-berry-like thing, topped by a pea-sized egg-shaped dark green seed coated with a powder-blue bloom. There is no flavor on the edible red part; it is merely wet and slimy. Grace Heintz of southern California described the fruits as "like tiny red gum drops that ripen purple-black, three-fourths of an inch long." But in Seattle they remain red and reach only five-eighths of an inch long. Though the ripe red part is edible to people, the rest is likely poisonous, especially to pets.
    The tree is grown from seeds or cuttings. It can be tall and slender, or shorter, broader and sprawling. It varies in the depth of its greenery. The healthiest and most content specimens bear larger and darker leaves.

    When sources mention the Yew Pine's var. Maki, the following is the species actually meant:

Podocarpus chinensis Sw.

= Podocarpus chinensis Wall. ex J. Forbes 1839
= Podocarpus macrophyllus var. Maki S. & Z. 1846
= Podocarpus macrophyllus var. Maki Sieb. ex Endl. 1847
= Podocarpus japonica hort. Bogor. ex Sieb. 1844
= Podocarpus japonicus Sieb. ex Endl. 1847

    This species is from China, though long cultivated in Japan, where it is the Kusa-maki. For years it was not known in the wild state. It is still very poorly understood and grossly confused with Podocarpus macrophyllus. It differs from Podocarpus macrophyllus mainly in being smaller and having smaller leaves --only 1.5 to 3.5 inches long. In cultivation it is a mere shrub, at most perhaps to 15 feet tall. It is good for bonsai.
    Cultivars imported to the West in the 1860s and attributed to this species include: Argentea(eus) silvery-white striped leaves; Aurea(eus) golden-margined; and Variegata(eus) a name that might apply to either of the preceding. These cultivars might well have been more recently imported anew from Japan and given Japanese names. Since Podocarpus chinensis is apparently only a shrub, at least as cultivated in the West, I have spent no time trying to sort its cultivars --I focus on trees.

Podocarpus macrophyllus

Podocarpus macrophyllus scan by ALJ

Podocarpus macrophyllus

Podocarpus macrophyllus photo by ALJ

Podocarpus macrophyllus male flowers

Podocarpus macrophyllus male flowers photo by ALJ

Podocarpus macrophyllus female flowers

Podocarpus macrophyllus female flowers photo by ALJ

Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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