The Poison Garden, Blarney Castle, Ireland
Taxus baccata [ Plantae: Pinophyta: Pinopsida: Pinales: Taxaceae: Taxus: T. baccata ]
The European Yew is a conifer that is native to Western, Central, and Southern Europe as well as Northwest Africa, Northern Iran, and Southwest Asia.
The Common Yew was amongst the first species to be described by Linnaeus belonging to family Taxaceae. The tree is a small to medium sized evergreen tree that grows approximately 10-20 meters tall (33-66 feet), though has been known to reach 92 feet (28 m) The trunk can become up to 2 meters thick (6 ft) though has been found in odd cases upwards of 13 feet thick in diameter. The Yew tree’s bark is thin, scaly brown and comes off in small flakes that is aligned with the stem. Its leaves are lanceolate, flat, and dark green upwards of 1-4 centimeters long and 2-3 millimters broad that are arranged spirally on a stem with the leaf bases twisted to align the leaves in two flat rows on either side of the stem, except on erect leading shoots when the spiral arrangement is more obvious. The seed cones are highly modified with each one containing a single seed that are 4-7 millimeters long and partly surrounded by a modified scale that can develop into a soft bright red berry-like composition called an aril, approximately 8-15 millimeters long and wide, open at the end. These mature 6-9 months after pollination. The seeds are often eaten by a variety of birds such as waxwings and thrushes who disperse the hard seeds undamaged in their droppings. The arils mature over 2-3 months adding to the successful seed dispersal. The seeds are extremely poisonous and biter, but opened and eaten by some bird species such as the great tits and the hawfinches. Male cones are globose and size 3-6 millimters in diameter, shedding their pollen in early spring. They are mostly dioecious but can be variably monoecious and change sex with time. Yews are slow growing and can be long-living, with some trunks having exceeded 2,000 years old (such as The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, Scotland). Age is difficult to determine with the Yew wood because rarely any wood on the tree is as old as the entire tree since the boughs hollow out with age, making ring counts impossible. There are some Yew trees believed to be 5,000-9,500 years old based on archaeological evidence of surrounding structures incorporated with the trees. has been estimated at 2,000 years old. It is the longest living tree in all of Europe.
The yew can be propagated through cuttings, seed, graftings or layering. Yews prefer a moist, fertile, sandy loam soil, but can grow well in most soils, especially chalk, but not in water-logged ground or sticky wet clay. The yew can flourish in the shade of taller trees, but little will grow in their own shadows.
The Yew, especially the Irish Yew, is commonly used in landscaping and ornamental horticulture, and are used especially for formal hedges and topiary.
A 450,000 year old wooden spearhead, made out of yew, is one of the world’s oldest wooden artifacts found at Clacton-on-sea,in Essex, UK. It is the choice of woods used for constructing longbows. Yew has also been utilized for making spears, spikes, staves, and small hunting bows. Arrows tipped in a poison made from Yew leaves was commonplace in the Middle Ages. European historical construction of bows from the Yew tree caused severe damage to the livlihood of the species and throughout history saw numerous bans of its harvest. Yew wood was also used to create wheels and cogs, spoons, handles, bowls and any turned items, also found in the body of the lute, and within sacred carvings.
The seeds and leaves are highly poisonous. The only part of the tree that is not poisonous is the aril and the wood. The aril is gelatinous and very sweet tasting.
The seeds and leaves are highly poisonous. The major toxin is the alkaloid taxane remaining toxic even when the foliage is wilted or dried. Horses have the lowest tolerance to Yew leaves, with a lethal dose of 200-400 mg/kg body weight while other livestock are less vulnerable. Symptoms of Yew poisoning is muscle tremors, convulsions, coldness, difficulty breathing, staggering gait, collapse, and eventual heart failure. Death is rapid. Fatal poisoning in humans are rare except if ingesting alot of yew foliage (estimated between 50-100 grams). It has been used for phyotherapy as published in the Canon of Medicine in 1021. It was used for cardiac remedy in a drug named “Zarnab” as a calcium channel blocker drug not in wide use in the Western world until the 1960’s. This was an early precursor to the chemotherapy drug called Paclitaxel that were made from the leaves of the European Yew. In the Himalayas it is used to treat breast and ovary cancer. Conflicts in 1990 against the harvesting of paclitaxel for cancer treatment from the Pacific Yew has stunted use. Some lore claims it was used to stimulate abortion.
It was traditional to take a yew branch on All Saint’s Day to the tombs of those who died recently so that they would find the guide to return from the Land of Shadows. Traditionally yews are planted in graveyards, near chapels, churches, and cemeteries as a symbol of transcendance of death. They are also found in the main squares of villages to bring all together. Often planted as a symbol for long life or as trees of death. Yew wood commonly used to make magical wands and/or staves. The yew represents immortality, renewal, regeneration, everlasting life, rebirth, transformation and access to the Otherworld and the ancestors. Many churchyards once stood in a circle of Yew, based on the churches being built over ancient Druid sacred groves. It is one of the most potent trees for protecting against evil and to bring dreams and otherworldly journeys. The Yew often represents old magic. In hot weather, it gives off a resinous vapor that shamans inhale to gain visions. The Yew is the last of the 20 trees in the Tree Ogham used for divination, prophecy, and a mnenomic device for learning. In Ogham, it is the “Idho” as a link to spiritual guidance through ancestors and guardians of the Otherworlds. It also represents death and resurrection or renewal in the Ogham. Yew used in divining rods can be used to find lost property.
Folklore and History:
The name “Yew” comes from the Proto-Germanic “*?wa-” and with possible origination from the Gaulish “ivos”. Word refers to the color “brown”. “Baccata” is latin for “Bearing red berries”. To the Celts, the Yew Tree has extroadinary supernatural power and importance. It was believed to be linked with the land, the people, the ancestors, and to the ancient religion. The tree is sacred to the Goddess Hecate and the Crone aspects of the Triple Goddess. The Yew was often seen as guardians of the Underworld, death, and the afterlife. It was a common ancient poison. Tribal leaders were often buried beneath the Yew as believed its dryad or tree spirit would join with them.
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