Explore the mystical world of the Yew tree, a living legend that has captivated minds for centuries. Get ready for a deep dive into identification, yew tree folklore, and the history of one of the oldest trees in the world.
Common Yew Tree identification:
Identifying the Common Yew Tree (Taxus baccata) is a fascinating process, and here are some key features to help you recognize this ancient and mystical tree:
Common Names: Common yew, English yew, European yew
Plant Family: Taxaceae
Scientific Name: Taxus baccata
Look for flat needles with a pointed tip.
The needles are dark green on top and light green beneath.
They are arranged in rows that grow spirally along the branches.
Yew Berry or Aril
In autumn, the Yew produces bright red berries known as arils.
These berries contain a stone in the middle.
The flesh of the berries is the only non-poisonous part of the tree.
Height and Growth Patterns
The Common Yew can reach a height of up to 20 meters.
Its growth pattern is characterized by branches that arch downward.
The branches are capable of forming new stems when they reach the ground.
The bark of the Common Yew is reddish-brown.
It peels off effortlessly, revealing the distinctive stem structure.
The stem creates bulging areas that look like all kinds of creatures want to emerge from the tree.
The Yew Tree is Poisonous
Yew trees contain various toxic alkaloids, including taxine, which can be lethal if ingested. All parts of the yew tree, except for the flesh of the berries, are considered toxic and consumption can be fatal.
A Tree of Life, Death, and Resurrection
The yew tree is one of the longest-living trees globally, with the oldest one estimated to be over 5000 years old. In the picture, you can see the oldest tree in Brighton, located next to the church in Stanmer Park. It is estimated to be well over 500 years old
Steeped in history and folklore, the yew symbolizes life, death, and rebirth. Often found in graveyards next to churches and ancient holy sites in England, the yew often predates the building of the church.
These majestic trees can reach heights of up to 20 meters, with gracefully arching branches. As they age, the stems hollow out, creating enchanting bulging areas that resemble various creatures emerging from the tree. Take a moment to walk around the tree; it is a natural piece of art.
The Yew Tree: Poisonous, Yet a Lifesaver in Medicine
The yew tree, scientifically named Taxus baccata, literally translates from Latin to 'toxic tree with berries.' The term 'Taxus' derives from the same root as 'toxic,' while 'baccata' signifies 'bearing berries.' Consuming even the smallest amount, approximately 50 grams, of its needles can prove fatal due to the presence of the potent poison taxine.
Here's a fascinating fact: even though the yew tree is one of the most poisonous plants globally, it plays a crucial role in medicine. Scientists found that the poisonous substance in yew trees can inhibit the growth of cancer cells. Back in the '60s, they began developing a cancer medication called taxol, which is derived from the bark of the Pacific yew. This medicine is still widely used in chemotherapy, especially for lung and breast cancer. However, the process of harvesting the bark can kill the trees and endanger the tree population. Taxol is nowadays produced semi-synthetically, using the needles of cultivated European yews.
Yew Tree Folklore and History
In pre-Christian times, the yew tree was more than just a poisonous plant; it symbolized the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. If the trunk died, a new one emerged, bringing the entire tree back to life – a natural resurrection.
The yew is surrounded by various myths; Romans believed it grew in hell, and in Spain, people placed yew branches on windows for lightning protection. Julius Caesar observed that Druids, ancient Celtic priests, considered the yew tree a sacred symbol of immortality. Celts believed yew twigs held healing powers and preserved the dead. Later, Christians adopted the yew as a symbol of renewal, integrating it into Easter traditions and Yew Tree Folklore. Yew twigs were often buried with the dead for various reasons, including protection against the black plague.
People once believed yews were immortal, given their extraordinary age. The Llangernyw Yew in Wales is estimated to be a staggering 5000 years old, making it one of the planet's oldest trees. Remarkably, some yew trees have doors, like the ancient Crowhurst yew in Surrey, possibly sparking Lewis Carroll's inspiration for Alice in Wonderland
Download our Free Identifycation Guide
Download our free identification guide now and unlock the world of Yew trees! happy exploring!
Links and References:
Trees for Life. (n.d.). Yew. [online] Available at: https://treesforlife.org.uk/into-the-forest/trees-plants-animals/trees/yew/ [Accessed 10 December 2023].
Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. (n.d.). Volume 28, Issue 4: Use of taxanes for the treatment of breast cancer. [pdf] Available at: https://www.rcpe.ac.uk/sites/default/files/vol28_4.1_12.pdf [Accessed 10 December 2023].
Wikipedia. (n.d.). Taxus baccata. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxus_baccata [Accessed 10 December 2023].
National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Taxol. [online] Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/research/progress/discovery/taxol [Accessed 10 December 2023].
The Conversation. (n.d.). Weekly Dose: Taxol, the anticancer drug discovered in the bark of a tree. [online] Available at: https://theconversation.com/weekly-dose-taxol-the-anticancer-drug-discovered-in-the-bark-of-a-tree-56508 [Accessed 10 December 2023].