Name: Yew (Taxus baccata)
Otherwise known as: Bone Gatherer
Habitat: An evergreen tree member of the Taxaceae family growing to about 25m in calcareous woodlands in temperate zones. It is possibly the longest-lived of all trees and has a rusty-red bark with a deep green foliage producing strange carmine arils which contain the very dark seeds. Very poisonous.
What does it do: The botanical name is taken from the Greek for bow and the common name, from the Anglo-saxon eow.
It appears that many pre-Christian societies venerated the yew: the Druids believed it was an emblem of immortality and collected staves and wands for divination and magic. Their ceremonies were conducted under the yew and many Christian churches were erected in proximity to the trees. The ancient Irish tribes believed that the tree was the oldest known living thing. Celtic tribes recorded historical events on yew staves and the Hindus, located in the Himalayas, crushed and burnt the leaves and used them to mark the ‘third eye’. It is believed that groves of yew give off a magical vapour on very hot days, and Shamans are said to communicate with the other side by climbing into the trees on these days. The Norse god Odin was believed to have discovered the secret of the runes by this method.
It is very difficult to separate the tree from the myth. Yew is said to be the guardian of wells and secret springs. Archaeologists excavating at Glastonbury in Somerset discovered the remains of a yew dating from 300AD beside the famous ‘Chalice’ well.
As the tree ages it will root its branches and throw aerial roots from inside its hollow trunk, thereby giving credence to the ancient belief in its immortality.
Yew is so dense that it was a substitute for iron and was considered superior by some farmers. The wood is very closed grained and water resistant, it was used to make bows, spears and weapon handles. The iceman discovered in the late nineties and thought to be over 5,000 years old was carrying a yew bow and axe-handle. The wood also featured as mill cogs and axles.
Yew contains a mixture of alkaloids known as taxine, diterpenes, lignans and resin, it is toxic in all parts except the aril. It was used in mediaeval times to treat epilepsy and snake-bite but it is more potent than any European snake and anyone taking yew as a cure is at risk of dying. The plant has a role in homeopathic medicine today where it is employed to treat gout and rheumatism.
Yew has come to prominence recently following the research into plant cures made by the National Cancer Institute of the USA where it discovered that taxol extracted from the bark was an effective treatment for some cancers. It works by paralysing the tumours thereby preventing cell division. However, the treatment doesn’t work for all cases.
Alexander McCowan is author of The World’s Most Dangerous Plants. Published by Lulu PLC and Amazon