English Yew, one of the eldest living organisms on Earth, holds many lessons in its history. From a spiritual and religious perspective, it symbolises dying and rebirth. To change and transform, you must pass through the phase of death, when new growth begins again; the transition is symbolised by its deep green colour.
1. Yew Tree Facts
Botanically known as genus Taxus baccata, it is a small evergreen tree native to Great Britain that can grow up to 65 feet (20 metres). Peeling bark reddish-brown in colour, sometimes purple tones, a fluted trunk that tapers upwards from its base. Although they are relatively docile slow-growing trees, they can live for thousands of years.
They were held sacred by druids for their regenerative ability. Big drooping branches touch the ground and re-seed for separate trees with multi-stemmed trunks symbolising death and resurrection in Celtic culture.
As an ornamental evergreen, the yew species grows in moist soils widely distributed throughout the northern hemisphere. Unique qualities have earned it valuable roles for yew hedge designs, decorative landscaping or topiary.
- Max Height 65 ft (20 m)
- Crown Size – 26 – 32 ft (8 m – 10 m)
- Largest Trunk Diameter – 52 ft (16 m)
Yew Leaf Identification
Leaves of common Yew are 1/2- 1 inch needles in pairs, with each leaf pair being a perfect match, usually smooth and shiny on the upper surface. Leaves remain glossy and dark green throughout the year but turn dull in the autumn colour.
Seed cones form bright red berries called an aril containing the enclosed yew seeds. The fleshy fruit is eaten by birds such as blackbird, raven, song thrush and mistle thrush. Flowers are dioecious (plants are either male or female), appear in clusters of small white flowers and are insignificant.
2. How Long Do Yew Trees Live?
The Yew is a magnificent coniferous tree best known for its incredible longevity. For a yew to be classed as dated, it must be at least 900 yrs mature instead of oak trees at 400 years. There are a handful of yews in England that surpass this age.
Notable ancient trees at Ankerwycke, Crowhurst, with the Defynnog Yew the oldest tree, said to be over 4000 years old, making it among the oldest organic things on Earth. The Fortingall tree was most senior, holding the British record with the largest circumference at 16 metres. Unfortunately, it has succumbed to natural decay splitting into multiple fragmented trees.
Yews have a lengthy life with many legends and myths surrounding them, passed down from generation to generation. An essential part of pagan culture is seen as the tree of life, symbolising regeneration. Although one of our native trees is sacred to druids, it is not in the Celtic tree calendar.
They are beautiful trees that flourish in the UK climate, often discovered in churchyards and graveyards. Commonly found on or near pagan ritual sites across Britain and Ireland, predating Christian buildings.
3. Yew Trees Medicinal Benefits
All plant parts are poisonous to humans and grazing animals, even pollen grains with numerous fatalities. Deer and rabbits can eat the dense foliage with no ill effects, though. Males have a toxic reputation with 10 out of 10 ratings on the OPALS allergy scale, while females have a 1 rating.
The Yew was revered by several cultures, including the Druids and Celts, where it was believed to hold spiritual healing properties. There are serious health concerns around treatments because of the high risks, of possibly dying from yew poisoning. Branch tips, and needles have all been exploited to make medicine.
Compounds from T. baccata are poisonous, harvested for taxine alkaloids utilised in anti-cancer treatments. An extract from yew bark (Taxol) Paclitaxel is employed in treatment of breast and lung cancers. It’s alongside the most expensive prescription medicines worldwide. Paclitaxel was initially harvested from a Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia). At the same time, docetaxel was gathered from European or common yew trees for prostate cancer treatments.
4. Yew Wood Uses
Wood from the Yew is extremely hard traditionally for woodturning, creating highly durable, hand-crafted goods, musical instruments, and furniture. An orange-brown heartwood with a clearly defined cream white sapwood. Although classed as softwood, its timber is incredibly strong, even harder than oak and some other hardwoods. See image for Janka hardness scale facts.
Used to make the English longbow for many historical battles, famously defeating the French in 1415 at the Battle of Agincourt. A yew spear point dated 420,000 yrs found at Clacton-on-sea is considered the earliest wooden artefact in the world. Ancient Egyptians also used Yew for sarcophagus and glacier man “Ötzi” with his axe handle and long yew bow.
The Latin word “taxus,” meaning “yew tree,” is probably borrowed, via Greek, from the Scythian word for Yew, and bow, Taxša (it is cognate with Persian تخش).
5. Yew Tree Symbolism, Mythology
One of our world’s elderly species is long-lasting and has a striking appearance. In addition to this, Yew is a rich source of historical knowledge. The ancient yew tree at Fortingall was already olden when Pontius Pilate played in its branches. Scotland’s timeline of visiting roman envoys meeting the chieftain Metellanus at his glen Lyon stronghold in 20BC supports this.
Heavily tied to British folklore, it is often identified at pagan burial sites and church grounds. Many Christian churches are built on a pagan ritual site. Scottish warriors also used deadly longbows; Robert the Bruce ordered bows be made from the sacred yews at Ardchattan Priory in Argyll.
In many different times and places, they have been seen as an everlasting symbol of immortality or omens of doom. It was customary for a branch to be carried at funerals and during Palm Sunday for centuries.
Historians believe the Romans named the continental tribe from the Gallic wars (54 – 53 BC) the Eburones after the European yew trees where they worshipped.
Pope Gregory (597-601AD), in a letter to Abbot Mellitus, ordered them protected. At the same time, Welsh king Hywel Dda set a special value on consecrated yews in 10th-century Wales.
At the dawn of the 16th and 17th century, Christians were persecuted and stopped openly practising their religion. Some embraced their faith despite the costs; others hid in secrecy. An inconspicuous tree was planted outside the door to announce their presence to passing Roman Catholics and priests.
Different spellings or pronunciations in other dialects.
- Gaelic: Ibar
- Welsh: Ywen
- Anglo-Saxon: Eow
- Scots Gaelic: Iubhar
- Eastern Celtic: Iw
Runes, Yews, and Magic – JSTOR
Churches, death and resurrection:
Tremendous Trees- Highland Titles