249 Taxus floridanaCommon Names: Florida yew Family: Taxaceae (yew Family)
Florida yew is an evergreen shrub or small tree, rarely to 25 ft (7.6 m) and usually less than 15 ft (4.6 m) tall. It has numerous spreading, horizontal branches that give it a bushy appearance. The leaves are needle-like and flat, about 1 in (2.5 cm) long and grow in two horizontal ranks on opposite sides of the twigs. The bark is purplish-brown, smooth on young stems and separating into thin irregular scales on older branches. Florida yew is dioecious and in October the female plants bear oval, half-inch long fruits that consist of a single yellowish-brown seed partly enclosed in a fleshy red cup.
Florida yew is similar to the Florida torreya (Torreya taxifolia), another exceedingly rare tree in the yew family. The two species have almost identical distributions, and can be told apart by examining the needles. The torreya has sharp, stiff needles, whereas the yew has soft, flexible needles. Also, the torreya foliage smells like tomato leaves, and the yew foliage smells more like turpentine.
Florida yew, Taxus floridana, is one of the rarest trees in the world and is listed as an Endangered Species by state and federal agencies. Florida yew occurs only in forested bluffs and ravines scattered along a 15-mile reach on the east side of the Apalachicola River between Chattahoochee and Bristol in Gadsden and Liberty Counties, Florida. It grows in clumps or small clonal stands within mesic forests dominated by American beech (Fagus grandifolia), southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), American holly (Ilex opaca), and white oak (Quercus alba). Some populations of Florida yew are protected at Torreya State Park and at The Nature Conservancy's Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, and these are the best places to see the tree. Other populations are on privately-owned land, and are vulnerable to destruction. (Note that US and Florida Endangered Species laws DO NOT provide protection for endangered plants on private property.)
CultureFlorida yew is slow-growing. It likes a slightly acidic soil. Light: Grows well in partial to almost full shade. Moisture: Moderately drought tolerant. Hardiness: USDA Zones 8 - 8. Hardiness range not known. Florida yew grows naturally in USDA zone 8B. Other species of yew are very cold-hardy. Propagation: Can be propagated from seed or cuttings. Seeds may require warm and cold stratification. Mature wood cuttings taken in winter can be rooted under mist.
Florida yew is rarely found in cultivation. If you can grow a yew, it certainly would make an interesting specimen or background shrub. And, you would be helping to prevent the extinction of this rare tree! Other species of Taxus (there are only eight species, but there are many popular cultivars in the trade) are used for hedges and topiary as well as specimen plants.
The bark of Florida yew contains the promising cancer-fighting compound taxol in amounts similar to Pacific yew (T. brevifolia). Pacific yew has been harvested for taxol, and the threat that the endangered Florida yew might also be harvested has worried conservationists. Fortunately, researchers recently have developed methods to synthesize taxol in the laboratory and methods to produce taxol with bioengineered fungus. Scientists at Florida State University in Tallahassee were the first to synthesize taxol in 1993, and since then FSU has reaped more than $100 million in royalties from Bristol-Myers Squibb. That same year scientists from Montana State University in Bozeman discovered that taxol is produced by a fungus that grows in association with yew trees. Now researchers at MSU and Cytoclonal Pharmaceutics are scientifically manipulating several fungi and bacteria species to make commercial amounts of taxol.
Taxol has been proven useful in treating breast cancer, ovarian cancer, some kinds of leukemia, and certain kidney diseases.
The seeds and foliage of all the yew species are extremely poisonous, and people have died from eating the seeds or drinking a tea made from the leaves.
Steve Christman 1/14/00; updated 12/10/04, 2/3/10