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Yew

Taxus baccata

Season

Colour

Habitat

Six red Yew berries alongside two younger green berries

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

Yew 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. It is also used for providing decoration for churches.

Clusters of red berried on branches of the Yew in a warm light

Where to spot it

Yew is concentrated in south-east and central England. It is primarily found in 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.

Best time to spot it

The best time to spot Yew is over the winter, specifically in November, December and January.

Does Yew have any medicinal value?

It’s important to note that 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.

However, Yews do 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.

Two bright red berries on the green branches of the Yew

Things you might not know

  • Yew’s sticky red berries are popular with birds, and bird-sown seedlings can colonise open chalk downland as well.
  • In some parts of the UK you might hear Yew referred to as ‘Hampshire weed’ or ‘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 are often pruned into formal hedges such as Hampton Court Palace’s famous 300-year-old hedge maze.

Other Species

Sweet Vernal Grass
A close up photograph of Sweet Vernal Grass

Sweet Vernal Grass

Rough Meadow Grass
Rough Meadow Grass in the field

Rough Meadow Grass

Perennial Rye Grass
Perennial Rye grass pictured at Cannon Hill Park

Perennial Rye Grass