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Garden Help Desk: Are the red berries on my yew shrub safe?

By USU Extension - | Nov 19, 2022

Courtesy photo

The mature arils on yews are attractive against a yew's dark green foliage but resist the temptation to take a taste — the seeds in the arils are very toxic.

I have several yews in my yard. This year one of them has red berries. Are they good to eat?

Some plant species have both male and female flowers on the same plant, some species have flowers that all have both male and female parts in each flower, and there are a few species that have male flowers and female flowers on separate plants. Gardeners often think of this last group of plants as either male (producing only pollen) or female (producing only fruit) plants. Your yew shrub is a “female.”

The red “berries” on your yew are the fruits of the yew., but they aren’t berries. The little red cup surrounding each single seed is called an aril, a special kind of fruit. The arils of other plant species might completely surround the seed. Some arils, like the red flesh around pomegranate seeds or the white part of lychees and rambutans are edible. The fleshy red cups on your yew are edible, but the little dark seeds tucked into the center of the cups are very toxic, just like all the other parts of a yew. The best choice is to think of those yew arils as a nice red accent on your evergreen shrub and leave them where they are. Play it safe — there are plenty of other delicious fruits to enjoy.

We’ve received several questions about fall yard care and cleanup from local residents. Here are some of the most common questions and answers.

Can I leave my leaves on my lawn? The best answer is that it depends. If there are so many leaves on the lawn that you cannot see any of the actual grass, this is too many to leave. When snow falls, it can pack the leaves into a layer that encourages snow mold, a disease that affects grass during the winter, leaving entire sections of the lawn brown when the snow melts off in the spring. If the leaf layer is thin enough for some grass to show through, you can mow them with a mulching mower and drop the leaves onto the lawn. If there are only a few leaves per square foot on the lawn, they can be left in place.

Courtesy photo

There are too many leaves on this lawn to ignore, but regular mowing with a mulching mower, instead of raking or bagging them, would have made quick work of them.

What should I do with my leaves if I collect them instead of leaving them on the lawn? If you don’t plan to use the leaves for organic matter in your own gardens, offer them to a gardening neighbor, mention them on your favorite social media, or send them to your local green waste site. A leaf blower will make your leaf collecting it easier. If you do want to use them in your garden, collecting them with a bagging mower will give you chopped leaves that can break down faster once their tilled into garden soil or added to your compost pile. Spread about 3 – 4 inches of chopped leaves over your garden soil and till them under in this fall, although it’s fine to let them sit until spring if you need to.

I heard tilling is bad. Should I really till? Over-tilling can be harmful specially if you have a clay or loamy soil, because it can break down the soil structure, or soil tilth. Healthy soils have around 50% of their volume filled with pores that hold water and air. The pore spaces are ruined by too much tilling, making it more difficult for plants to be healthy in over tilled soil. Utah State University soil scientists recommend limiting tilling to once or twice a year at most, so it is fine to till but on a very limited basis. Save your tilling for times when you need to work more than a thin layer of organic matter into your soil.

If fall leaves are scattered across the lawn, with plenty of grass showing between the leaves and only a few leaves per square foot, you can safely ignore them, if needed.

When leaves accumulate in a thick layer like this they should be collected and removed to reduce the risk of winter lawn diseases. A leaf blower or bagging mower can make the job much easier.

You'll know you have a female yew if your shrub develops red fruits in late summer through fall.


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