Mostly slow-growing, evergreen, slightly resinous shrubs or small trees. Leaves spirally arranged (opposite in Amentotaxus), linear or scale-like, 2 pale bands on the lower surface, often appearing to be arranged in 2 ranks by a twisting of the short leaf stalk. Plants mostly unisexual. Male cones axillary, solitary, more or less cylindrical and catkin-like. Female cone berry-like, axillary, with a single erect seed more or less surrounded by a fleshy covering (aril) when ripe.
Seed dispersal is by mammals or birds. Taxus is adapted to seed dispersal by birds having a stalk (aril) that becomes sweet and red when the seeds ripen: all other parts of the plant contain the toxic alkaloid taxine.
Sometimes classified as a separate order within the conifers (Taxales, taxads) because of the seed position, little resin and other characters.
Most species grow in humus-rich, low-lying sites that are not exposed to summer heat and dryness.
The genus Torreya has hard, pungently pointed leaves and is rarely cultivated in south-eastern Australia. Torreya nucifera Siebold & Zucc. is occasionally offered in the trade; it may be seen in New South Wales at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney and the Mt Tomah Bot. Gds.
4 genera and c. 20 species mostly from moist forests of the Northern Hemisphere from subarctic Eurasia & North America to tropical C America and SE Asia. Austrotaxus which is endemic to New Caledonia is the only genus in the Southern Hemisphere and rarely cultivated.
Literature: Price (1990).
Source: (1995). Taxaceae. In: . Horticultural Flora of South-eastern Australia. Volume 1, Ferns, conifers & their allies. The identification of garden and cultivated plants. University of New South Wales Press.
Updated by: Roger Spencer, May 2018