European yew - Taxus baccata - also known as the common yew

One of the 3 native evergreens of Great Britain, the yew is a type of conifer, although it bears red 'berries', or arils, instead of cones. It typically grows to about 15 - 28 m high, and can have a huge girth. It is widespread throughout Europe, North Africa and Asia. The yew is often found in dense woodland on chalk or limestone soils but it is also in common usage as a garden shrub. In fact it lends itself well to topiary and is the shrub of choice in mazes in the gardens of stately homes.

The wood of the yew tree is very durable and beautiful, being very pale with small knots, dark streaks and spots (called pepper). It is prized as a veneer and for use in making tool handles and furniture, but it is probably most famous for being used to make longbows. Indeed it has been suggested that if it were not for the invention of firearms the yew could well be now extinct!


Taxol and Taxotere are strong anti-cancer drugs. They start life as chemicals extracted from the bark of the Pacific yew and the European yew.

All parts of the tree, except the fleshy aril, are poisonous. Shakespeare made reference to this in a number of plays including Macbeth where it was used by the witches. Pliny the Elder noted that people died after drinking wine that had been casked in yew barrels.

Yew trees are often found growing in cemeteries because they are said to symbolise immortality. This is hardly surprising since the yew is one of the oldest types of tree in the world. There is a yew in Farringdon, Hampshire, which has a girth of 30 feet and is estimated to be 3000 years old, and others in Llangenyw, Discoed and Fortingale are perhaps 5000 years old. Even when the central trunk of the yew dies, it throws up new shoots from the roots in an ever expanding circle - another symbol of life-everlasting.

Since ancient times the yew was thought to be the protector of the dead and a guardian against evil spirits. It was often used in pagan rituals. Since many churches were built on the remains of pagan sites this might also explain their presence in churchyards.

The oldest known piece of wood is a spear made of yew. It is 250,000 years old and was found at Clacton in Essex.

The yew tree is the symbolic tree of the Fraser clan in Scotland. They believed it brought them good luck and warded off evil spirits.

In some parts it is known as 'The tree that kills twice' due to the poisonous nature, and the fact that bows were made from its wood. - thanks to stupot for this snippet

Respected English botanist and TV personality David Bellamy asked that every English parish should plant a yew tree, preferably in a churchyard, to commemorate the Millennium.

Yew trees became the traditional tree in English Churchyards simply because Palm trees, originally held to be sacred and a symbol of rebirth from death, could not grow in English climate.

i have very fond memories of yew trees from when i was very young. you see, there are two nice american yew bushes growing at my house. and as good old webby says, yews form berries instead of cones like other evergreens. it was always a wonderous time of year when the berries began to ripen.

that meant it was time for my "artisitic ability" to take flight. for you see, ripe yew berries--and the semi-ripe ones--are deeply colored, at the darkest a near-black shade of purple. and they were *different colors* during the ripening process! i had a pale yellow, various pink and red shades, and finally the purples. during peak season, the bush had all the colors at once.

the chalk was always put away, then. forget chalk! for a few weeks, all sidewalks near my house were adorned with yew juice "paintings". it was a neighborhood event and all the kids came over for art time.

one of my overall fondest childhood memories, and just a heck of a lot of fun, to boot.

The yew, aka Taxus spp, is a tree/shrub that grows predominatly in wet, temperate climates.

The most noticable thing about the yew is that it is one of the few gymnosperms that has berries, or at least what appears to be berries. Much like the alder, which has fruit that appears to be cones, the yew has cones that appear to be berries. They are little fleshy growths that cover most of the seed.

Other then the red berry like cones, Yews can be recognized by their dark green needles and their size, which is usually 2 to 5 meters, and with multiple stems.

All parts of the yew are said to be extremly posionous, and as little as 2 or 3 needles is enough to kill a child. I myself have eaten that much, but being about 70 kilos, I was unharmed. The specific poison in yew is a glycoside that blocks the calcium channels in muscle tissue. In heart tissue, this means the heart doesn't beat. As you would guess, it is a very hard poison to deal with, and there is no antidote.

In addition, one species of yew, the Pacific Yew, produces a chemical called Taxol, which can be used to treat breast cancer. However, this takes about 5 tons of yew bark to make a dose of it.

The greatest traditional use of the wood of the yew was as the stock of a bow due to its strength and flexibility of the wood. In addition, a single stem of a yew tree was about the right size and width for a bow stock. Since the era of polymers etc, and the decline of the bow and arrow in warfare, this use has probably been greatly curtailed.

There is various mythological associations with the yew tree, probably due to the fact that it is poisonous and had bright red berries.

Lines left upon a seat in a yew-tree, 
which stands near the Lake of Esthwaite, 
on a desolate part of the shore, commanding a beautiful prospect.

Nay, Traveller! rest. This lonely Yew-tree stands
Far from all human dwelling: what if here
No sparkling rivulet spread the verdant herb?
What if the bee love not these barren boughs?
Yet, if the wind breathe soft, the curling waves,
That break against the shore, shall lull thy mind
By one soft impulse saved from vacancy.

---from “Lines Left Upon A Seat In A Yew-Tree” 
by William Wordsworth

Maybe Wordsworth's yew tree was located in a desolate place, but humans have lived close to yew trees throughout history. For thousands of years, humans have found uses for live plants, foliage, wood, and tiny fruit of this slow-growing, long-lived shrub. Recently, the bark has also become prized as medicine.

The yew bush or tree includes several species native across Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and some Pacific islands. If you're looking at the landscaping, it's probably the common or European yew (taxus baccata) or Canadian yew (taxus canadensis). Each of this large group is well-adapted to live in nearly all climates, and can thrive even in poor soils in climates with harsh winters. The plants can grow upwards of 15.24 meters(50 feet) tall, with thick branches and needle-like leaves approximately 1.5-4 centimeters long and 0.3-0.2 centimeters wide. Yews are legendary for their long life, with individuals estimated at up to 2,000-4,000 years old. There are some reports of individuals surviving to 5,000-9,500 years, but highly branched trunks prevent counting growth rings in these ancient specimens.

Yew reproduces through small seeds produced in the spring from tiny flowers growing between leaves. Most individuals are dioecious, and bear either female or male flowers on each plant. Occasionally, monoecious individuals bear both female and male flowers, or change between dioecious and monoecious. Both female and male flowers are tiny, with female flowers measuring 4-7 millimeters in diameter. Male pollen cones measure 3–6 millimeters. Fertilized female flowers grow quickly into aril-covered fruits, which grow first as a green seed that turns brown. These red, berry-like fruits only grow up to 0.31–0.59 in 8–15 millimeters. Later, the green aril which partially surrounds the round seed and ripens into a fragile, fleshy pulp. This sugar, y surrounding gives the fruit the impression of a brown pebble mashed into red clay, or a brown marble lodged in a bellybutton. While the inner seed is highly toxic and loaded with heart-slowing taxanes, the red pulp surrounding the seed contains no poisons and can be eaten safely by both animals and humans. The fruit pulp of the aril has a smooth, syrupy texture and is very sweet with a faint pine taste. When birds eat the highly visible fruits, the seed passes through them intact without harming the passenger or carrier. Birds are the main way for seeds to disperse long distances.

While humans can consume the berry-like fruits safely if they spit out the seeds, you will never find them for sale. Aside from bearing potentially lethal seeds, the fruits are too small and fragile to offer much interest. Still, there is at least one recipe for a yew berry tart. Yew is one fruit you'll never see at the store, no matter how exotic their other offers are. There are too many other plants with edible arils, like pomegranate. While the pomegranate appears to be a single globe with a seedy flesh, every sweet mouthful is actually a collection of fruits, each surrounded by a juicy aril. Newly introduced to world markets in juices and supplements, the mangosteen is another fruit grown and marketed for its tasty aril. Tamarinds make a great paste featured in many Indian and south Asian dishes. Adventurous foragers and knowledgeable locals can snack on lesser-known fruits like the Jamaican Ackee, quamachil, balsam apple and tuckeroo.

While its slow growth and irregularly shaped branches preclude the trees from serving as main structures, the tough elastic wood is useful where a smaller volume of wood will do. Yew finds many uses in ancient weaponry. The oldest discovered use is a yew spear head, found the UK and is estimated at 450,000 years old. In medieval Wales and England, yew wood was ideal for the longbow, a powerful weapon that could send an arrow through even armored fighters. Some longbows had draw pulls topping 670–900 N (150–200 pounds). Since they can be winched into place or pulled with an archer's abdominal muscles, crossbows or arbalests with yew bows could top even these impressive draw pulls. Vikings also used the highly resinous wood as pegs or nails to secure warships together. While the wood would be useful as structural slats, the rarity of straight pieces prevented them from using yew as more than a fastener in shipbuilding.

Ancient humans discovered that yew could heal as well as kill. Avicenna introduced an herbal drug he named "Zarnab" as a cardiac remedy in The Canon of Medicine. In the Central Himalayas, the plant treats breast and ovary cancers. Likewise, the chemotherapy drugs paclitaxel (taxol) and docetaxel are derived from the bark of the Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia). Unfortunately, this requires killing the slow-growing and endangered trees. Fortunately, the drugs can also be synthesized by converting precursors from the leaves of common or European yew.

Yew has made ideal landscaping for hundreds of years. It tolerates both heat and cold, flood and drought, and is incredibly long-lived. Its wiry, resilient branches retain their shape which make them perfect for shaping into topiary, including rounded or geometric forms, exotic animal shapes and even mazes. Unlike other conifers like juniper, the leaves are smooth and do not prick when touched. This simplifies pruning, and allows lost wanderers to squeeze their way through walls which would otherwise deter shortcuts.

Lastly, the foliage is toxic to livestock like horses, cows, sheep and pigs. This may have endeared it to persnickety parsons hoping to discourage wandering livestock from loitering around their houses of worship. Yews surround many old churches in Europe and their branches may have also provided substitutes for otherwise unavailable palm fronds for celebrating Easter. This combination of qualities made them an ideal landscaping for churches, providing utility for guests and a repellent for four-footed trespassers.


Yew (?), v. i.

See Yaw.


© Webster 1913.

Yew, n. [OE. ew, AS. eow, iw, eoh; akin to D. ijf, OHG. iwa, iha, G. eibe, Icel. r; cf. Ir. iubhar, Gael. iubhar, iughar, W. yw, ywen, Lith. jeva the black alder tree.]

1. Bot.

An evergreen tree (Taxus baccata) of Europe, allied to the pines, but having a peculiar berrylike fruit instead of a cone. It frequently grows in British churchyards.


The wood of the yew. It is light red in color, compact, fine-grained, and very elastic. It is preferred to all other kinds of wood for bows and whipstocks, the best for these purposes coming from Spain.

⇒ The American yew (Taxus baccata, var. Canadensis) is a low and straggling or prostrate bush, never forming an erect trunk. The California yew (Taxus brevifolia) is a good-sized tree, and its wood is used for bows, spear handles, paddles, and other similar implements. Another yew is found in Florida, and there are species in Japan and the Himalayas.


A bow for shooting, made of the yew.


© Webster 1913.

Yew (&umac;), a.

Of or pertaining to yew trees; made of the wood of a yew tree; as, a yew whipstock.


© Webster 1913.

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