English Yew, one of the most ancient living organisms on Earth, holds many lessons in its history. From a spiritual and religious perspective, the tree is a symbol of death and rebirth. To change and transform, one must pass through the phase of death, and when new growth begins again, the transition is symbolised by the colour green.
1.The English Yew Tree, Taxus Baccata
Botanically known as Taxus baccata, the English Yew is a small evergreen tree native to England that can grow up to 65 feet in height (20 metres). Peeling bark reddish-brown in colour, sometimes purple tones and a fluted trunk that tapers upwards from the base. Although they are relatively docile and slow-growing trees, they can live for thousands of years.
They were held sacred by the druids for their regenerative ability. Big drooping branches touch the ground and re-seed for a separate tree with multi-stemmed trunks symbolising death and rebirth in Celtic culture.
As an ornamental evergreen, the yew species grows in moist soils widely distributed throughout the northern hemisphere. Unique tree qualities that have earned it valuable roles for yew hedge designs, decorative landscaping and 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 long needles in pairs, with each leaf pair being a perfect match and usually smooth and shiny on the upper surface. Leaves are green all through the year but turn dull in the autumn colour.
Seed cones form into a bright red berry called an aril containing the yew seeds. The fleshy fruit is eaten by birds such as blackbird, raven, song thrush and mistle thrush. The yew tree flowers are dioecious (plants are either male or female)found in clusters of small white flowers and are insignificant.
2. How Long Do Yew Trees Live?
The English Yew is a magnificent coniferous tree that is best known for its incredible longevity. For a yew to be classed as ancient, it must be at least 900 years old as opposed to an oak tree 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 one of the oldest living things on Earth. The Fortingall tree is one of the oldest and held the British tree record with the largest girth at 16 metres. Unfortunately, it has succumbed to natural decay splitting into multiple fragmented trees.
The Yew tree has a long history with many legends and myths surrounding it, passed down from generation to generation. An important part of pagan culture is seen as the tree of life and thought to symbolise death and rebirth. Although one of our native trees sacred to the druids, it is not in the Celtic tree calendar.
They are beautiful evergreen trees that flourish in the UK climate and are often found in churchyards and graveyards. Commonly found on or near pagan ritual sites across Britain and Ireland and predate Christian buildings.
3. English Yew Trees Medicinal Benefits
All parts of the tree are poisonous to humans and cattle, even the pollen with numerous fatalities. Deer and rabbits can eat the dense foliage with no ill effects, though. Male plants have a toxic reputation with a 10 out of 10 ratings on the OPALS allergy scale, while females have a 1 rating.
The Yew has been used by several cultures, including the Druids and Celts, where it was believed to hold spiritual healing properties. Serious health concerns around treatments because of the high risks and possible death from the yew poison. Branch tips, needles have all been used to make medicine.
Compounds from Taxus baccata are poisonous, harvested for the taxine alkaloids used in anti-cancer treatments. An extract from the yew bark (Paclitaxel) is used for the treatment of breast and lung cancers. It’s one of the most expensive prescription medicines in the world,. Paclitaxel was originally harvested from the Pacific Yew tree (Taxus brevifolia), while docetaxel was gathered from the European or common yew tree for prostate cancer treatment.
4. Yew Wood Uses
The wood from the English Yew is traditionally used 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, it is harder than English oak and some other hardwoods. See the image for Janka hardness scale facts.
Used to make the English longbow for many historic battles and famously defeated the French in 1415 at the Battle of Agincourt. One of the oldest wooden artefacts in the world is a yew spear point at 420,000 years old found at Clacton-on-sea. The 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 Mythology and symbolism
One of the world’s oldest living species, it is long-lasting and has a striking appearance. In addition to this, the Yew tree is a rich source of history and knowledge. The ancient yew tree at Fortingall was already old 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, the Yew is often found at pagan burial sites and church yards. Many Christian churches are built on a pagan ritual site. Scottish warriors also used the 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 and omens of doom. For centuries, it was customary for yew branches to be carried at funerals and during Palm Sunday.
Historians believe the Romans called the continental tribe from the gallic wars (54 – 53 BC) the Eburones after the 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 special value on consecrated yews in the 10th century.
At the dawn of the 16th 17th century, Christians were persecuted and stopped from practising their religion openly. Some embraced the faith despite the costs; others chose to hide in secrecy. To announce their presence to passing roman Catholics and priests, an inconspicuous tree was planted outside the door.
Old Irish: Ibar
Old English: Eow
Scots Gaelic: Iubhar
Eastern Celtic: Iw
Runes, Yews, and Magic – JSTOR
Churches, death and resurrection:
Tremendous Trees- Highland Titles