3 February 2015

The English Yew

European Yew Berry
Yew Berry by Didier Descouens CC BY-SA 3.0
The English Yew, (Taxus baccata), one of the few native British evergreens is renowned for it’s longevity & it’s poison, Taxin. The name ‘taxus’ may be related to the Greek ‘toxon’ (bow) and ‘toxicon’ the poison with which arrowheads were dressed. Yew is poisonous, leave the berries for the birds.

The Yew tree  is a dioecious tree which means that male and female flowers are on separate trees. The flowers form in the angles between the narrow leaves and the stem and they may be dormant for several years, especially if under heavy canopy. The male flowers are like globes of yellow stamens set in brown scales. When the flowers mature in February and March the stamen shields open in good weather to release the pollen to the wind. When the weather is poor the stamen shields sensibly close to keep the pollen dry. On warm spring days the tree offers it’s copious pollen for our bees. Set upon the wind, the pollen has to find a female flower bearing tree. The female flower is tiny with a tip which produces a mucilage substance. Once the female flower catches the pollen, the tip moves back into it’s cup and fertilisation takes place. The seed starts to develop and is at first small and green sitting like an egg in an egg cup but by October the fleshy, red cup or aril, has grown to cover the black seed. The pretty red fruits are about 0.5 to 1cm long and are known in some parts of England as ‘snotty gogs’ or ‘snottle berries’. The blackbird & thrush now step in to help the process, birds eat the fruit and emit the seed unharmed upon their flights. A Yew seed falling to earth won’t germinate for at least 18 months.

Yew trees certainly live a very long time. There are living yews which are recorded in the Domesday Book. The Tandridge Yew in Surrey which has a girth of 35 ft was already fully grown more than a 1000 years ago. The Saxon foundations of the Church (25 ft from the tree) were carefully built around the tree’s extending roots. The Fortingall Yew Tree in Glen Lyon, Perthshire is estimated as being between  1500 and 2000 years old. These are certainly some of the oldest trees in Europe.
The Yew seems to have many claims on it’s heritage from various Faiths and the attribution of age plays a part in this. All of which seems unnecessary when one considers the wonderful nature of the trees themselves. The Yew remains aloof! and the usual way of dating a tree by counting the annual rings in the trunk doesn’t help. Yews have a complex growth pattern and may stop growing (& putting on annual rings) for long periods of time. The trunk of a yew tends to hollow with age, whilst it continues to grow by rooting its branches and forming a grove around itself. Aerial roots may grow inside the hollow trunk. So the regeneration from a new trunk within the old tree or from around the circumference of the tree will renew it, seemingly indefinitely.

The lives of three wattles, the life of a hound;
The lives of three hounds, the life of a steed;
The lives of three steeds, the life of a man;
The lives of three eagles, the life of a yew;
The life of a yew, the length of an age;
Seven ages from Creation to Doom.
Nennius (9th century historian)

No wonder then that the Yew is associated with death, rebirth and immortality and that legends abound. One theme is of yews springing up on the graves of lovers, like Tristan & Iseult, and the branches intertwining to link them even in death.Yew traditions related to death include a sprig of yew being placed in a shroud to protect and restrain the dead person’s soul, or burial with a yew berry in the mouth to symbolise rebirth. Another association with death is Yew’s use in weaponry. Robin Hood’s bow was surely made of yew wood. English kings ordered the planting of yews in churchyards to ensure the supply of wood for the famous English Longbow which defeated the French. The Yew was...

...Not loth to furnish weapons for the bands
Of Umfraville or Percy ere they marched
To Scotland’s heaths; or those that crossed the sea
And drew their sounding bows at Azincour,
Perhaps at earlier Crecy, Poitiers...

The Yew has been, and by many still is, considered a sacred tree and those who doubt this may consult the Welsh tenth century Laws of Hwel Da which include the following:

A consecrated yew, its value is a pound.
A mistletoe branch, three score pence.
A yew tree, not consecrated, fifteen pence.
A sweet apple, three score pence.

More recently Yew has played a part in the treatment of cancer. Large quantities of fresh yew clippings from hedges near one of my apiaries used to be collected for medical research. Today the active drug is synthesised, but we can see that the Yew tree still indirectly provides a chance of renewal for many cancer sufferers.
The Yew is a tree to appreciate, and early pollen for the bees too!

Marion Malcher © 2015
This article first appeared in the print newsletter "Buzz", updated 3rd February 2015
Sources: J.Paterson, A.Fraser, F.Hageneder & Hamlyn Book of Trees

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