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Yew

Latin name: Taxus baccata

Native words: Old Irish (ibar) Scots Gaelic (iubhar) Old English (eow) Welsh (ywen) eastern Celtic (iw)

Ogham sign: I

Height when mature: 25m (82ft)

Height after 10 years: 1-2m (3-6ft)

Yew botanical description:

Yew, like Beech, and Rowan, is one of the few British native trees that can grow in the shade of other trees. Yew, which is an evergreen tree, possesses needle like leaves (dark green above, light green below) set in two ranks along its twigs from the start, which are waxy to the touch. Trunks are often fluted, with the bark reddish brown and flaking, but yews are often multi stemmed, which leads the crown to be very broad. Like Holly, male and female Yew flowers occur on separate trees; male flowers are small and yellow and shedding pollen in February. The red berries develop on female trees. These berries stand out in midwinter and are favoured by birds which eat the flesh but discard the poisonous seeds.

Natural History and ancient wisdom:

Living longer than any other British native tree species, yew trees can reach 2000 years of age! Yew grows wild across the British Isles and can be found clinging to the sides of crags in Snowdonia and the glens of Scotland. The fact that they are evergreen attracts ravens, which nest in February, and require shelter and inaccessible sites to use them. Very few wild yews survive in the lowland areas, although some of those ancient specimens in churchyards presumably were wild seeded. In British folklore yew is associated with immortality and death. Yew is well known for its association with and places of burial. Ancient Yews are a feature of many churchyards, and as several are over 1500 years old, they must have growing before Christianity arrived at their locations. Many later churches were located on sites of pagan worship. One piece of evidence, which may support this, is the fact that the Romans called one continental tribe the Eburones, “the people of the yew” after the places where they worshipped. The 10th century Welsh king Hywel Dda set a special value on “consecrated yews”. In Irish legend the character Fer I (“Man of Yew”) who plays a magical harp sits in a yew tree. When Eogan and Lugaid Mac Con are disputing, they hear a magical music from a yew growing over a waterfall but the sound is revealed to be emanating form Fer I. “Yew Glen” was the term Finn Mac Cool uses to describe the spirit world as a “valley of death’”. In the 16th and 17th centuries Yews were often planted outside houses belonging to Roman Catholics, to alert priests passing by or other Roman Catholics to their presence.

Yew place names:

Youghall (county Cork) “yew wood”, Palnure, Galloway, “pool by the yew”, Ewhurst (Surrey). The personal name Euan means “born of yew”.

Yew wildlife rating:

Thrushes such as fieldfare and red wing seek yew berries in hard weather, and disperse the seeds as they move.

Yew trees - good points/ bad points:

Seeds very poisonous. Underneath yews nothing grows due to the combination of the carpet of spines dropped by the tree and the darkness under the thick canopy. Slow growing. Makes excellent evergreen hedge which takes clipping well, although this prevents it fruiting. (Not to be planted near livestock!)