Also called ‘English Yew’ or ‘European Yew’, this is one of the world’s longest-lived trees. A slow-growing evergreen tree, it may vary in height quite considerably and can grow between 10m to 25m (33ft to 82ft) tall. They are a broadly conical conifer with dense foliage, the trunks of mature trees maybe severely gnarled and twisted. The bark is reddish and purplish-grey, smooth, and it peels continuously in strips making it appear patchy. The needles are dark green and glossy above and paler below with two pale yellowish bands, and are 3cm long. The trees are either male or female. The male flowers are yellowish and shed copious amounts of pollen in clouds from the top of the tree in early spring. The greenish female flowers give rise to the hard fruits which are surrounded by a red fleshy aril which is 6-7mm long. They ripen in late autumn and the black seed contained within is extremely poisonous, yet many birds who rely on it as an important winter food source pass the seed through them unharmed which helps in the tree’s propagation.
Ancient Common Yew woods are found in southern England on chalk downland, and are found frequently in limestone areas elsewhere. It has long been eradicated in some localities in the past due to its high toxicity and threat to livestock, and to its once prized value as wood for making bows. Commonly found planted in old country churchyards, parks and gardens, and they are often used for topiary as it is easy to prune and shape into ornamental forms. Yew is native to Britain and much of Europe, it grows throughout the British Isles, but less so in Ireland and it is absent from the far north of Scotland.
Some of these Yew trees are estimated to be over 2,000 years old, and many are found in old English churchyards where they have commonly been found growing over the past centuries. The wood is said to last longer than iron, and was used in the past to craft weapons used in medieval warfare. The Common Yew has a long association with English culture, and because the wood is hard and flexible it was used in the Middle Ages to make cross-bows. longbows, spears and musical instruments. The world’s oldest wooden artefact is made from yew, a 250,000-year-old spear found at Clacton in Essex.
Common Yew has been used for hedging and ornamental shaping as in topiary for centuries. Its dense evergreen foliage makes for long-lasting impenetrable hedging, and its slow-growing nature makes it ideal for clipping into ornamental forms. It has been widely planted in churchyards for thousands of years, and has earned the nickname ‘Tree of the Dead’. In fact, no other species of tree has such a close association with ancient churches. At least 500 churchyards in England and Wales alone contain yew trees. Some of the trees planted near old churches may indeed predate the church itself, and may have been pre-Christian sites of worship. Yews were sacred to the Druids, and on the site of many ancient churches once grew sacred groves of yews, or yews planted in circles like woodhenges at locations in the land perceived to be sacred. In ancient times the yew was consecrated to the gods of the dead because of its high toxicity, but it has also been a symbol of immortality, resurrection, and endurance because of its long-living and regenerative nature. Yew is also considered as a protection against evil, a symbol of old magic, and as a means to communicate with our ancestors, connecting us to a mysterious and magical realm beyond this life.
Almost all of the tree is poisonous to humans and livestock, which can lead to heart failure and fatality. The major toxin is the alkalide taxine.
Photographs of Common Yew (Taxus baccata), taken May, June and September 2013, all except bottom image taken in Warley Woods, Staffordshire. Bottom image of topiary taken at St George’s Church, Kings Stanley, Gloucestershire. © Pete Hillman 2013. Camera used Nikon Coolpix P500.