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What kind of conifer is this?

  • Red fruit
  • Broad needles; not clusters
  • 12 feet tall; north wall of apartment building
  • East of Toronto, Ontario
  • September 20, 2022
  • Hint: click the photos a couple of times to zoom in

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Street view 2009:

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Street View 2021:

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    $\begingroup$ You shouldn't eat anything that you've not identified with 150% certainty, which means this comment is technically not required. Still: the entire yew bush is poisonous. $\endgroup$ Sep 21 at 8:11
  • $\begingroup$ Yew trees grow to 5000 years old and have been associated with cemetaries since pre-christian times. google.com/… $\endgroup$ Sep 25 at 3:08

2 Answers 2

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The basic appearance is consistent with the family Taxaceae, commonly known as the Yew family. Primary indicators are the relatively distinctive shape and color of the arils (the red fleshy bits around the cones, which are actually technically not fruit), the fact that it’s a shrub, the fact that it was seen in Ontario (correct climate for most Yew species), and the fact that it’s being used as a decorative plant (Yews are very popular as decorative shrubs in that region of North America).

We can eliminate most of the genera relatively quickly:

  • Pseudotaxus has only one species, which has white arils instead of red.
  • Austrotaxus has only one species, which has a rather distinctively different aril than what is seen in the picture.
  • Cephalotaxus species also have a rather distinctively different aril than what is seen in the picture.
  • Amentotaxus species have rather distinctively different leaves (they’re much larger, among other differences).

That just leaves us with the genera Toreya and Taxus, which account for most of the species of Yew globally. A Toreya species is not particularly likely, as they are not generally used much in that part of North America as decorative plants, which just leaves Taxus.

My first guess given the region and apparent lack of male cones would be Taxus canadensis (the Canadian Yew), but the stated height and growth habits seen by comparing the 2009 and 2021 pictures don’t quite agree with that (T. canadensis generally does not get much more than 2.5 meters (about 8-9 feet) tall, and tends to grow out much more than up.

More likely, it’s a hybrid of T. canadensis and T. cuspidata (the Japanese Yew), which is a relatively common variety used as a decorative plant in the Midwestern and North Eastern US, as well as South Eastern Canada.


As a side note, irrespective of what exact species this is, be careful around it. All parts of every species in the family Taxacae except for the arils are highly toxic to humans year round. Yew poisoning can easily be lethal, and currently has no known antidote (though in theory most of the symptoms are treatable).

Touching the plant is fine, but you should be careful handling any clippings or sawdust from cutting it, and definitely do not eat any part of it (the arils are theoretically fine to eat, but the seeds they surround are actually the most toxic part of the plant, so it’s generally not worth the risk).

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    $\begingroup$ We used to taste the arils (pericarp) quite commonly. They are safe. Some people also made a jam from them, but I would not recommend that. $\endgroup$ Sep 22 at 13:34
  • $\begingroup$ I remember a funeral parlor surrounded by yew shrubs that my siblings and I passed on our way walking to and from school. I ate these berries by the literal handful every day they were available; my mother had told me it was fine as long as I was sure to spit out the seeds. I was never poisoned that I know of, so I think you might be overcautious. (I tended to listen to my mother.) $\endgroup$ Sep 23 at 1:50
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From what I've seen here, in Europa, this definitely looks like some kind of Taxus_baccata (Taxaceae family).

It most probably is a Taxus canadensis in Ontario. Also know as (local names): Canada yew, American yew, ground-hemlock, if du Canada, sapin trainard.

As it's always hard to tell based on photo that we didn't take ourselves, the best you can do is to compare its features with an identification key (either numerical/book).

The best online definition that I found for this species is:

Shrubs to 2 m, usually monoecious, low, diffusely branched, straggling, spreading to prostrate. Bark reddish, very thin. Branches spreading and ascending. Leaves 1--2.5 cm ´ 1--2.4 mm, pale green abaxially, mostly without cuticular papillae along stomatal bands, dark green to yellow-green adaxially, epidermal cells as viewed in cross section of leaf wider than tall or ± isodiametric. Seed somewhat flattened, 4--5 mm. 2 n = 24. Provided by: [A].Flora of North America @ efloras.org

Straggling shrub with ascending or rarely erect stems to 2 m; lvs 1–2 cm × 1–2 mm, abruptly narrowed to a sharp point, attached by the shortly petiolar base to a decurrent sterigma on the twig; scales of winter-buds keeled, ± acute; fleshy seed ca 5 mm; 2n=24. Coniferous woods and bogs; Nf. and Lab. to Minn. and se. Man., s. to Va., Ky., and Io. Provided by: [B].Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern US and Canada

Source: http://www.worldfloraonline.org/taxon/wfo-0000459412

See also:

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Source: Arbustrum Americanum : The American grove, or, An alphabetical catalogue of forest trees and shrubs, natives of the American United States, arranged according to the Linnaean system : containing, the particular distinguishing characters of each genus, with plain, simple and familiar descriptions of the manner of growth, appearance, &c. of their several species and varieties. : Also, some hints of their uses in medicine, dyes, and domestic oeconomy (Marshall, Humphry, 1722-1801) DOI: https://doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.68506
Available at: https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/68506 or: https://collections.nlm.nih.gov/catalog/nlm:nlmuid-2562033R-bk

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  • $\begingroup$ What is the principle difference to Taxus baccata? And I find the statement confusing. First saying that it is a kind of T. baccata and then that it is T. canadensis. Perhaps you meant Taxus baccata s.l. or agg.? $\endgroup$ Sep 25 at 12:02
  • $\begingroup$ "Taxus baccata L., known as European or English yew, is a conifer native to Europe." > forest.jrc.ec.europa.eu/media/atlas/Taxus_baccata.pdf I don't know enough its spread outside Europe to make an assertion about its presence in Ontario actually. $\endgroup$ Sep 25 at 12:06
  • $\begingroup$ I do not think the natural spread is too relevant. The shrub is likely to be cultivated. I only know the European one. But I was mainly pointing to the confusing statement in the first sentence. $\endgroup$ Sep 25 at 12:11

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