Scientific Name: Taxus baccata
Common Names: The Yew tree
Plant Type: Small tree or large shrub
Environment: Part shade to full sun; well drained soil kept moderately moist, moderate salt tolerance
Bloom: Seed cones contains a single seed surrounded by a succulent red aril open at one end
Uses: Widely used in landscaping and ornamental horticulture. Great as a pruned shrub, hedge or topiary
Other: Some of the oldest trees are estimated to be more than 1000 years old, with the belief that some could be 3,000 or more, but no ring count can be taken as all ancient yews have decayed centers. Torreya californica, California nutmeg, is also in the Taxaceae family. The seed is also enclosed in an aril but is green and olive-like. Highly valued in furniture industry for its hard reddish lumber resistant to insects and fungi
The thick, somber yew has adorned the graveyards of Europe for centuries, casting its dark shadow over the living and the dead. The ancient Druids thought them sacred, possibly because of the yew's longevity, and planted them by their temples. There are yews surviving in Europe that are believed to be 2000 years old. In very old trees the trunk can span 13 feet and becomes fluted and shaggy.
The yew is a conifer and native to Europe, northwest Africa and Asia Minor. The needles are dark green, are spirally arranged yet lie flat on either side of the branchlet. Its modified seed cone resembles a red juicy berry open at one end. It is called an aril and much fancied by birds. The aril is the only non-poisonous part of the yew, and covers the single seed which is toxic to animals and humans. Even the needles of the yew have poisonous qualities. Poets have lavished thousands of words over the yew, seeing it as a symbol of the transcendence of death over life.
In the battle of Agincourt, the archers of Henry IV with their longbows of yew wood defeated the French knights who were mounted and dressed in armor. The inside of the longbow is made of the yew's heartwood which resists compression: the outside is made of the sapwood which resists stretching. The popularity of the longbow as a weapon in the wars of the Middle Ages almost caused the extinction of the yew from Europe. In the 1990's, the chemotherapy drug, Taxol, was derived from the bark of the Western Yew, Taxus brevifolia. That species also faced extinction from over-harvesting, until a process was developed using the needles of the European yew, which is far more widespread.
IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS:
Photos by Docent Joanne Taylor, Text by Docent Kathy McNeil, Profile by David Kruse-Pickler