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English Yew (Taxus baccata)

A General Characteristics / ID Tips

An evergreen tree species known as common yew or sometimes, confusingly, as both English Yew and European Yew. Primarily grown as an ornamental plant, and a typical sight in churchyards. Characterised by its distinctive red berries and scaly, reddish-brown bark. The bark often grows deeply fissured with advanced age. This species is thought to be one of the longest lived in Europe.

History and Culture

Yew trees are incredibly long-lived and specimens under 900 years old are still not considered to be ‘ancient’. In Britain alone, there are ten yew trees believed to predate the 10th Century.

Yew trees are commonly associated with churchyards, with at least 500 churchyards in England confirmed to contain yew trees older than the buildings themselves. It is believed that the yew trees were planted over the graves of plague victims to purify the dead, but also as a deterrent to ‘common folk’ grazing their livestock on church grounds due to the toxicity of yew foliage.

Associations with paganism and other pre-Christian faiths are also well-documented. It was believed for example that wands of yew would banish evil spirits. When pagan populations were converted to Christianity these trees retained their sacred significance. Indeed, branches of yew are often used as a substitute for palm fronds on Palm Sunday.

Uses

The canopies of yew hedges and mature trees are particularly dense, offering protection and nesting opportunities for a variety of bird species, including goldcrest and firecrest. The fruits also provide a food source for birds and small mammals and the leaves are eaten by caterpillars of the satin beauty moth.

The timber of yew has a wide array of uses. The most notable historic use for yew being longbows in medieval ages. Yew-based artefacts, including a spear head estimated to be around 450,000 years old, are amongst the oldest surviving wooden artefacts.

Despite being toxic to humans and livestock, the foliage of Taxus baccata has been used to create anti-cancer compounds used in modern medicine.

When planted and properly cultivated, the species is also remarkably effective as a filter for noise, wind and air pollution.

Care and Preservation

Yews are also one of the few coniferous tree species that readily regrow from cut branches, making them one of the few conifers that can be regularly trimmed without causing undue stress.

It should be noted that the entire yew bush is toxic, due to a group of chemicals known as toxic alkaloids. While the aril (red flesh of the berry covering the seed) is technically edible, no part of the tree should be consumed.

In terms of planting, yew trees are suited to normal and clay soils and tolerate the full range of shading. Yews also need a relatively high amount of watering in the first few seasons.

Did You Know?

Unlike Britain’s four other native evergreen species, the yew possesses astonishing regenerative abilities.  A hollow yew is able to endure and thrive by producing new roots from its centre.  These grow straight down into the ground to feed, strengthen and stabliise the tree.

Threats and Conservation

Despite a reputation for being largely indestructible, yew may be susceptible to root rot and phytophthora root diseases – especially in waterlogged soils.

Yews may also be attacked by a number of pests including tortrix moth, vine weevil, gall mites and scale insects.

Various conservation programmes are currently in operation in Britain and Europe to preserve ancient yew populations. In the UK, the Royal Botanic Gardens have taken clippings from ancient specimens, including the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, in order to form a mile-long hedge. And in Catalonia, the Forests Sciences Centre of Catalonia (CTFC) initiated a conservation programme in the 2010s in order to protect the genetic stock of endemic yew populations.

It is hoped that projects like this will help to preserve the DNA of Taxus baccata for future propagation and act as a contingency against overgrazing and forest fires.

Final Thoughts

The yew is an evocative, iconic tree species both in the UK and mainland Europe. Often linked with immortality, doom and death, the yew also simultaneously provides food and shelter for woodland animals. The yew is a species to be celebrated and preserved: an ancient, morbid and toxic champion of life and death.

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