What is Cephalotaxus?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 09 November 2019
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Cephalotaxus is a genus of evergreen trees and shrubs native to Asia. These plants are known as cowtail pines or plum yews, and it is estimated that there are approximately 11 species in the genus. Many of these species are cultivated for timber, culinary purposes, and ornamental uses. People interested in growing Cephalotaxus can propagate from seeds or cuttings, or obtain a seedling from a nursery or garden supply store. Growing from an established seedling will take less time than propagating.

Members of this conifer genus have flat, needle-like leaves arranged in two ranks on either side of each branch. New growth tends to have spiraled needles that flatten out over time, although in a few species, the needles remain arranged in a spiral arrangement. Both dioecious and monoecious species are available, meaning that some plants are specifically male or female, while others can produce both male and female gametes. At least one species produces an edible, plum-like fruit known to be consumed in Japan.


Most of the species in this genus are small. Even the tree species do not develop great heights, and all are very amenable to pruning and shaping. Gardeners can use a Cephalotaxus as a specimen planting in the garden, as a topiary object, or in the creation of a hedge. The shrubs can also be used as borders and background plantings in the garden. Generally, pruning should take place during the summer months, and people should avoid pruning away more than one third of the foliage in any given session, in order to avoid shock.

These trees and shrubs are known to grow in climates similar to those found in United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) growing zones five through nine. On the cooler end of this spectrum, Cephalotaxus should be planted in full sun. In warmer zones, it is advisable to select partial to full shade to protect the plant from burning. In all cases, loamy or peaty rich soil should be used for cultivation.

For propagation from seed, the seeds will need approximately two years to sprout, and they require a period of cold during their germination. Gardeners can establish seeds in containers and leave them out to overwinter before bringing them back in to sprout. Propagation from cuttings requires cuttings at least six inches (approximately 15 centimeters) long. Using a rooting hormone can help increase the chances that a cutting will root and establish itself. Cephalotaxus is a slow growing genus and people looking for a quick addition to the landscape should consider buying a more mature seedling at a nursery.



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