Common name Common Yew
Botanical name Taxus baccata
Family Taxaceae
Natural range Across Europe
Mature height to 20m
Form Broad-spreading with age, flat top crown
Likes Wide range of soils
Dislikes Water-logging
Where to plant Formal gardens, hedges
Known for Being highly toxic, & for its religious significance

Is the Common Yew More Than Just a Tree in European History?

The Common Yew, or English Yew as some might call it, is an integral part of European history, deeply entwined with sacred rituals and churchyards. Across Europe, the Yew is a familiar sight in graveyards and religious places, a connection fostered by the Celtic, Christian, and Norse religions. The Yew’s long life span and the tree’s deadly poison might have played a part in its sacred standing.

Did you know? This evergreen tree, with its wide-spreading form and flat top crown, reaches a mature height of about 20m. Yew trees enjoy a variety of soils, making them versatile across different landscapes.

Just How Toxic Are Yew Trees?

In the world of flora, the Yew tree is one of the most toxic. Every part of the tree, except for the tempting bright red fruit, is poisonous. There are countless stories of fatal encounters with this tree, including an unfortunate individual who reportedly died from inhaling Yew tree sawdust while cutting it down.

Nature’s paradox: Despite their inherent toxicity, Yew trees are known for their significant anti-cancer benefits. The chemical taxol, found in Yew trees, has been used in the treatment of several cancers including breast, ovarian, and lung cancers.

Why is It Challenging to Determine the Age of a Yew Tree?

Determining the age of a Yew tree can be quite challenging. The traditional method of ‘ring-counting’ is ineffective because, over time, a fungus causes the inside of the trunks to rot, resulting in hollow trunks. Despite this, several Yew trees across Europe have been estimated to be more than 2000 years old, making them one of the oldest tree species around.

Yew trivia: Yew trees are very resistant to diseases. They can split under the weight of advanced growth without getting infected. They can even sprout new shoots from cut surfaces at a mature age, ensuring a younger ‘version’ of the tree is always ready to take over as the older one dies.

What is Their Role in Historical Warfare?

Historically, Yew timber has been associated with Wales and England for a peculiar reason – the creation of longbows, an early weapon developed in northern Europe. The unique arrangement of the Yew heartwood on the inside of the bow, and the sapwood on the outside, made the most efficient use of their properties: heartwood excels in compression while sapwood proves superior in tension.

A slice of history: Some historians suggest that the Yew tree played a significant role in warfare, providing the essential material for crafting effective long-range weapons.

How Can I Successfully Plant a Yew Tree?

Owing to its dense, dark green, mature foliage and tolerance to severe pruning, the Yew tree is a popular choice for landscaping and ornamental gardens. This hardy tree thrives in a wide range of soils and shade but is not a fan of waterlogging.

Gardening tip: When planting a Yew, make sure to choose a location with well-drained soil. Despite its hardiness, the Yew tree doesn’t tolerate waterlogged conditions.

For further exploration on the fascinating world of Yew trees, check out these resources:

  1. The History of Yew Trees in Europe
  2. Understanding the Toxicity of Yew Trees
  3. How Yew Trees Contribute to Cancer Treatments
  4. The Connection Between Yew Trees and Warfare
  5. Tips for Planting and Caring for Your Yew Tree
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