SPECIES NOTES: Eight species in this treatment. The species of Taxus are more geographically than morphologically separable; they were all treated by Pilger as subspecies of T. baccata. All species are poisonous; most contain the anti-cancer agent taxol; and a study of heartwood constituents of T. baccata, T. brevifolia, T. cuspidata and T. floridana found them to be chemically almost identical. However, the vast ecological amplitude displayed by the various described species (over 60° of latitude and an impressive temperature and precipitation range) suggests that they are true species. There are hundreds of yew cultivars.
LONGEVITY: The oldest tree in Europe is said to be the Fortingall Yew of Fortingall, Scotland, near Loch Tay. It is 3,000 years old and presently lives surrounded by a cast iron fence in a churchyard. It is 56 1/2 feet in circumference, the heartwood is missing. Some people estimate that a foot of growth represents thirty years, but this is inexact as trees grow slower or quicker depending on their environment, Co2 levels and varying weather conditions. Because they have been considered sacred trees and were protected as such, and even today are still protected in graveyards there are still some very old examples of yew trees living today.
Unfortunately compared to the amount of yew trees available in ancient times our modern population of yews especially in 'tree-challenged' Ireland is verging on extinction.
HISTORY: The oldest known wooden implement is a spear made of yew wood, about 50,000 years old, from Clacton-on-Sea, England.
Archeological excavations have found yew bows and knives in Swiss lake dwellings from 10,000 years ago. Historically, yew bows were the weapon of choice for both hunting and warfare throughout most of Europe until the invention of firearms.
Yew was also employed as a poison, used for assassination, suicide, as an arrow poison, and to poison fish and mammals.
Due to its hardness, it was used for shuttles, cogs, axle-trees, and pulley-pins. The colorful wood (red heartwood, white sapwood) was used to veneer furniture, to make lute bodies, bowls, tankards, combs, tool handles, pegs, and various art objects. It was used in many ways by various religions, and certain yew objects such as drinking-cups are still regarded as having a certain spiritual potency.
Yew forests were once common in France and
Germany. The wood of the English Yew was used for bows by Celtic and Teutonic
warriors, a practice which eventually led to the demise of the great Yew forests
of Western Europe. In Teutonic areas the Yew had important symbolic
significance. A judge's staff was made of its wood and Yew was planted in
graveyards as a form of protection from malevolent spirits. Its needles were
also used in rituals to communicate with the dead.
PALEOBOTANY: The oldest recognizable yew is the Triassic Paleotaxus rediviva, found in strata 200 ma old. The mid-Jurassic Taxus jurassica (140 ma old) is more recognizable as a member of Taxus, containing features characteristic of T. baccata, T. cuspidata, and T. brevifolia. A Quaternary yew, Taxus grandis, is probably simply T. baccata.
TOXICOLOGY: The foliage, bark, and seeds - but not the fleshy red aril - of most Taxus species are toxic due to the presence of taxine; this alkaloid, however, was not found in T. brevifolia.
T. baccata (English yew) and T. cuspidata (Japanese yew), are best known and documented for toxicity. Cattle have been poisoned by T. canadensis planted in British Columbia, but toxicity of T. brevifolia has not been conclusively recorded. Although horses, cattle, and humans have been poisoned by ingesting yew leaves and seeds, the fresh foliage of T. canadensis is browsed by deer, and that of T. brevifolia by moose with no apparent ill effects.
The dried leaves are more toxic than young fresh leaves.
POLLINATION: Is by wind dispersal. Seed dispersal is primarily by birds, which eat the seeds in the aril and subsequently excrete viable seed.
OGHAM LETTER: I idho
Used as protection for the dead on their journey to the otherworld, protects from evil spirits. Plant a yew on the outer boundary of your property to protect from evil spirits. Carry a bough for protection on long journeys, also worn protects astral travellers. Wands of yew-wood banish malevolent forces, and spiritually purify an area.
Cutting or burning a Yew was said to bring bad luck (harming any tree is not a good act). Relic boxes and magical tools were made from it's wood. A sprig of Yew was used by dowsers to find lost objects, the sprig was held out in front of the seeker and was seen to jump when the object was located.
Yew was one of the "nine sacred woods" used in the ritual fires of the Celts. The fires were started with Oak branches rubbed or rotated against one another and then the nine sacred woods were added, having been ritually gathered in the forest. In the Carmina Gadelica these nine woods were the Willow of the streams, the Hazel of the rocks, the Alder of the marshes, the Birch of the waterfalls, the Rowan of the shade, the Yew of resilience, the Elm of the brae, and the Oak of the sun. The ninth wood might have been Holly, Ash, or Pine, varying with region.
Many Celtic tribes had a 'totem' tree which was associated with them, the Euberones of Gaul had the yew as their sacred tree. The strength of the tribe was bound to their tree and anyone harming the tree was committing a warlike act against the tribe.
Used in all burial rituals to honour the dead. Pieces of yew buried with the body can protect the soul on its journey to the otherworld. Call on the Goddess Medb while holding to promote visionary experiences, Call on Dagda for longevity spells.
Cooper, M.R., and Johnson, A.W. - Poisonous plants in Britain and their effects on animals and man. London, Ministry Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Ref. Book 161. 1984.