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Yew: A Tree with Ancient Shadows

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

There was a time when gardeners grew a great deal of yew in their foundation plantings.  Why not?  It is a beautiful evergreen shrub, with astonishing waxy red berries.  Birds seemed to like them.  So did children.  I can remember gathering berries to add to my childhood sandbox witch’s brews (I was a strange child, but you knew that).

My own children, too, once dared to pluck the berries.  They first fed them to the parrot, and he seemed unaffected.  So my twins decided they were safe to eat.  Fortunately, they did not deign to share their bounty with their baby sister, who, predictably, ratted them out.  A call to Poison Control, a dose of emetic, and all this is now just a family story.

It could have gone much worse: yew, or Taxus, berries are lethal. Not the squishy part.  I hear that that part is sweet and tasty, and isn’t poisonous.  That deadly distinction belongs with the seeds themselves. The pollen produced by the male plants is a cytotoxin, and can trigger headaches, rashes, and dangerous asthma attacks.  The lovely evergreen foliage can also trigger allergic reactions, and is even more dangerous when brought inside and dried.

As the experience of Merlin, our parrot, illustrates, the berries are not toxic to birds.

If I were a more protective mother, I probably would have ripped out the offending shrubs then and there. But that came later, when our burgeoning white-tail deer population showed up and nibbled the shrubs to nubbins. I replaced them with aronia.

“Yew” is a common name given to a number of coniferous trees or shrubs. It is a strong and venerable plant.  Yew is the traditional wood used for the English longbow, the killer weapon of Crecy and Agincourt.

The plant itself can be extremely long lived. Some have been around 400 to 600 years. One, in Perthshire, Scotland, appears to be 2,000 to 3,000 years old, and has the largest recorded tree girth in Great Britain. Yews appear to be particularly long lived in cold climates.  Some think that Yggdrasil, the Norse mythological tree of existence, long held to be an ash, should be better translated as being a yew.

Yew is traditionally planted in cemeteries and churchyards. Legend holds that all of these specimens are descended from a still-living mother tree in Fermanagh, Ireland, known as the “Florence Court Yew.” It may be that the ability of the yew to outlast many human lifespans that evokes the feeling of transcendence over death.  A more pragmatic theory is that the poisonous foliage keeps grazing animals out of the churchyard.  White-tail deer appear to be the exception.

An anti-cancer drug, paclitaxel, is derived from yew cuttings, some taken in the yearly trimming of these churchyard trees.

Saint Mary’s Church, in Painswick, Gloucestershire, has long been the home of many yew trees…and a prophecy.  There are properly 99 Yew trees growing in the churchyard.  Should there be one more, bad things will happen. The church itself acknowledges that there are presently of at least 100, and probably more.  Draw your own conclusions.

Something that can grow so old must itself be magic, and must shelter magic, both good and bad, in its shadow. As William Wordsworth describes them in his poem, “Yew-Trees”, they are

Huge trunks! -and each particular trunk a growth

Of intertwisted fibres serpentine

Up-coiling, and inveterately convolved, –

Nor uninformed with Fantasy, and looks

That threaten the profane; -a pillared shade,

Upon whose grassless floor of red-brown hue,

By sheddings from the pining umbrage tinged

Perennially -beneath whose sable roof

Of boughs, as if for festal purpose decked

With unrejoicing berries -ghostly Shapes

May meet at noontide: Fear and trembling Hope,

Silence and Foresight, Death the Skeleton

And Time the Shadow; there to celebrate,

As in a natural temple scattered o’er

With altars undisturbed of mossy stone,

United worship; or in mute repose

To lie, and listen to the mountain flood

Murmuring from Glaramara’s inmost caves.