Yew is an evergreen conifer native to the UK, Europe and North Africa.
Common name: yew
Scientific name: Taxus baccata
UK provenance: native
Interesting fact: Taxus baccata can reach 400 to 600 years of age. Ten yew trees in Britain are believed to predate the 10th century.
What does yew look like?
Overview: mature trees can grow to 20m. The bark is reddish-brown with purple tones, and peeling. The yew is probably the most long-lived tree in northern Europe.
Leaves: straight, small needles with a pointed tip, and coloured dark green above and green-grey below. They grow in two rows on either side of each twig.
Flowers: yew is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers grow on separate trees. These are visible in March and April. Male flowers are insignificant white-yellow globe-like structures. Female flowers are bud-like and scaly, and green when young but becoming brown and acorn-like with age.
Fruits: unlike many other conifers, the common yew does not actually bear its seeds in a cone. Instead, each seed is enclosed in a red, fleshy, berry-like structure known as an aril which is open at the tip.
The foliage and seed coat of yew contains a cocktail of highly toxic alkaloids. The aril (fleshy red part) is not toxic and is a special favourite of blackbirds which act as efficient seed dispersers. Some birds, such as greenfinches, even manage to remove the toxic seed coat to get at the nutritious embryo.
Look out for: the needle-like leaves grow in two rows along a twig. Underneath, the needles each have a raised central vein.
Could be confused with: Irish yew (Taxus baccata ‘fastigiata’) or other planted yew species.
Identified in winter by: it is an evergreen so its features are present year round.
Where to find yew
It is commonly found growing in southern England and often forms the understory in beech woodland. It is often used as a hedging plant and has long been planted in churchyards.
Value to wildlife
Yew hedges in particular are incredibly dense, offering protection and nesting opportunities for many birds. The UK’s smallest birds – the goldcrest and firecrest – nest in broadleaf woodland with a yew understorey.
The fruit is eaten by birds such as the blackbird, mistle thrush, song thrush and fieldfare, and small mammals such as squirrels and dormice. The leaves are eaten by caterpillars of the satin beauty moth.
Mythology and symbolism
Yew trees have long been associated with churchyards and there are at least 500 churchyards in England which contain yew trees older than the building itself. It is not clear why, but it has been suggested that yew trees were planted on the graves of plague victims to protect and purify the dead, but also that graveyards were inaccessible to cows, which would die if they ate the leaves.
Yew trees were used as symbols of immortality, but also seen as omens of doom. For many centuries it was the custom for yew branches to be carried on Palm Sunday and at funerals. In Ireland it was said that the yew was ‘the coffin of the vine’, as wine barrels were made of yew staves.
How we use yew
Yew timber is rich orange-brown in colour, closely grained and incredibly strong and durable (hence why old trees can remain standing with hollow trunks). Traditionally the wood was used in turnery and to make long bows and tool handles. One of the world’s oldest surviving wooden artifacts is a yew spear head, found in 1911 at Clacton-on-sea, in Essex, UK. It is estimated to be about 450,000 years old.
Yew is a popular hedging and topiary plant. Anti-cancer compounds are harvested from the foliage of Taxus baccata and used in modern medicine.
Medicinal uses and toxicity
Yew trees contain the highly poisonous taxane alkaloids that have been developed as anti-cancer drugs. Eating just a few leaves can make a small child severely ill and fatalities have occurred. All parts of the tree are poisonous, with the exception of the bright red arils. The black seeds inside them should not be eaten as they contain poisonous alkaloids.
Yew has a reputation for being indestructible, but it may be susceptible to root rot.