Chinese plum yew

Kew's Chinese plum yew looks more like a small bush than a tree, but in its native China this species can grow up to 20 m tall.

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Chinese plum yew

Chinese plum yew (Cephalotaxus fortunei)

Quick facts

  • Scientific name: Cephalotaxus fortunei.
  • Family: Cephalotaxaceae
  • Place of origin: central China and south-western China
  • Conservation status: lower risk (conservation dependent)
  • Date planted: unknown
  • Height: not recorded

About Kew's Chinese plum yews

The diminutive Chinese plum yew was introduced to Britain by Scottish botanist Robert Fortune in 1848 after one of his many plant collecting trips around Asia. Kew's trees do fairly well and tend to fruit heavily, although interestingly, while the squirrels eat just about everything else, they avoid the 'plums' of this tree.

Take a closer look

  • The foliage of the Chinese plum yew is quite distinctive. Its needles are arranged horizontally on both sides of the leaf shoot and can grow as long as 15 cm. The needles have a sharp tip and are a glossy deep yellow-green colour with two wide grey or white bands on the underside.
  • Chinese plum yews are either male or female. The fruits, or arils, are found on female plants and contain a seed almost as large as the 'plum' itself.

Tree biology

This native of China and Myanmar is a handsome evergreen. It has one or more vertical stem-like trunks from which random twists of branches grow both upwards and outwards, giving it the appearance of a bush. While strictly speaking a tree, it rarely grows above 6 m tall in cultivation, although it can grow as high as 20 m in its natural habitat. Its broad leaves have given rise to the alternative common name of Chinese cow's tail pine.

The plum referred to in its more usual common name are olive-like fruits that initially emerge on the tree a bright blue colour and over the course of two years ripen through green to a deep purple brown. These fruits, or arils, appear in bunches of four or five and are not recommended for human consumption.

Although not that common, arils are not limited to the yew family. Flowering plants such as the mangosteen, pomegranate and lychee all have arils of various types. The main benefit of this arrangement is that the fleshy fruit attracts birds and animals that eat the aril and later pass the seeds out in their droppings, thus increasing the chances and distribution of the tree.

Cultivation and uses

The Chinese plum yew is highly regarded as an ornamental evergreen. Due to its small size and tolerance of pruning, it is sometimes planted as a hedge in shady positions, or even as ground cover.

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