Yew Taxus baccata

Status Green - Least concern
Best Time to See January, November, December
Colour Green, Red
Habitat Woodland

'Thy fibres net the dreamless head / Thy roots are wrapt about the bones' - Alfred, Lord Tennyson

A mature yew is compelling for its dense, dark evergreen foliage and buttressed trunk that has a colour close to mahogany.

It has a unique and remarkable association with churchyards where it was planted over graves to protect and purify the dead, and also for more mundane reasons such as being planted on a protected site to provide wood for long bows and to keep poisonous foliage out of reach of browsing cattle, as well as providing decoration for churches. It also furnished supplies of 'Palm' for the processions on Palm Sunday.


Distribution

Concentrated in south-east and central England.


Habitat

Churchyards and woodland. It is principally a species of well-drained chalk and limestone soils. In ancient woods it grows alongside ash, maple and beech. Its sticky red berries are popular with birds, and bird-sown seedlings can colonise open chalk downland as well.

Did you know?

Vernacular names include Hampshire weed and Snotty-gogs (for the berries).

The world's oldest known wooden artefact is a 250,000-year-old yew-spear that was found at Clacton in Essex. The timber is so hard that it outlives iron.

The slow-growing yew can live two or three centuries but it is difficult to date mature trees because the dense wood does not always produce rings.

Yews contain an alkaloid named taxol which seems to be effective against ovarian, breast and lung cancers. Drug companies and research laboratories are offering to buy the foliage in bulk.

Yews are often pruned into formal hedges such as Hampton Court Palace's famous 300-year-old hedge maze.

Every part of the yew is poisonous except the flesh of its red berrylike fruit (the aril), although even that contains a toxic seed. The aril is slightly sweet which makes it tempting for children. Eating just a few seeds or a handful of leaves causes gastrointestinal problems, a dangerous drop in pulse rate and possible heart failure. Many victims are found dead and therefore are never able to describe their symptoms. Suicide by yew was a way of avoiding defeat in Ceasar's Gallic Wars.