By Mike McKenna

Thanks to a strong and snowy start to the past winter, a popular variety of evergreen shrubs known commonly as “yews” became Public Enemy #1 in the Wood River Valley.

More than a dozen elk found the hardy evergreen plants during the height—and depths—of winter snows and were poisoned by eating them at a couple different locations in the valley.


Photo courtesy of Yew Dell Gardens.

Angry letters went out to local newspapers protesting the plants and the Blaine County Commissioners even passed an ordinance against planting any more exotic yews. But it turns all the attacks on yews may have been a bit misguided.

“The yews, the poor things, have been a little bit maligned,” Sofie Wilkes of the Branching Out Nursery in Bellevue said. “It’s been a popular plant here for over 20 years without any problems until this winter.”

Yews are a fairly large species of evergreen trees or shrubs that are extremely popular for use in landscapes in colder climes like Central Idaho. Extremely hardy and native to regions around the globe, yews proved year-round foliage and can handle just about anything Mother Nature throws at them. In fact, they’re pretty much the ideal shrub for cold and snowy places—with one exception. Most of the plant, except for the flesh of its bright red berries, is poisonous to people and animals. The seeds within the berries are, however, extremely toxic if they are chewed and opened.

While cases of human poisonings are relatively rare, animals, especially wildlife like deer and elk being poisoned by them, are a bit more common. Luckily, most wildlife will only turn towards eating yews when their regular food sources are unavailable, as was the case caused by big snowfalls this winter.


Tress and shrubs wrapped in burlap.

While the knee-jerk reaction locally has been to ban and remove the rather pervasive plant, Sofie said there may be an easier solution.

“Simply covering the plants with burlap or putting up a fence that will keep animals away, just like many people already do each fall with their evergreen trees, can protect both the wildlife and the plants during winter,” she said.

Sofie said that yews are not only popular, but they are tough plant to replace in local landscapes. There aren’t many shrubs as hardy as yews. Both arborvitaes and junipers species can be used to replace yews, but both are extremely popular with wildlife, meaning even if you do replace your yews, you’ll still need to cover or protect whatever you replace them with. Please click here for some basic information about using burlap to cover plants.

The team at Branching Out, or the staff at your favorite garden center, can help advise you about how to replace or protect your yews. But if you’re not worried about children getting access to them, there’s really no need to replace your yews. The communities of Ketchum and Sun Valley have declared that the yews aren’t a threat and don’t need to be replaced.

Heck, the news with yews isn’t all bad. An important anticancer drug, taxol (which has been proven to be effective against ovarian and other cancers) can be found in several yews species.

“It’s a shame. That plant has been attacked but there’s a pretty simple mediation,” Sofie said. “It’s one of the only plants that really works well here and it has provided nice green spaces for years here without a problem until this winter.”

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