Trees & Shrubs – The Yew Tree – Taxus baccata

Trees & Shrubs – The Yew Tree (Taxus baccata)

English Yew

Taxus baccata listed by the RHS Royal Horticultural Society as a native British tree, medium sized, evergreen, pollution and wind-tolerant. 15m or 50ft, in height and awarded AGM Award of Garden Merit
Taxus baccata is a conifer native to western, central and southern Europe, north-west Africa, northern Iran and southwest Asia.

Scientific name: Taxus baccata
Higher classification: Taxus
Rank: Species
Conservation status: Least Concern (Population increasing)

The Irish Yew (var. fastigiata), mentioned below, differs from the type in having all its branches growing erectly, after the manner of a Lombardy Poplar, and in the leaves being scattered promiscuously over the branch-lets instead of being in two regular rows.

It is the tree originally known as yew, though with other related trees becoming known, it may now be known as English yew, or European yew.

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The Yew Tree – London tree surgeons

The English Horticulturist Edward Step had this to say about the Yew a century ago.

Yew.

In the Yew, the male or pollen-producing flowers are borne by a separate tree from that which bears the female or cone-producing flowers. In the Pines both sexes are found on the same tree; but throughout the order the pollen is carried by the wind.

In the Yews the leaves spread out in two rows from opposite sides of the twigs;

The Yew (Taxus baccata) lacks the graceful proportions of most of our trees, but it has for compensation a most obvious air of strength and endurance. Who doubts, as he gazes at some sombre Yew in the old churchyard, the story of the local antiquarian, who tells him the tree has so stood for 2000 years. He may, perhaps, mildly suggest that neither the church nor the churchyard was in existence so far back, but even then the antiquarian will probably have the last word by suggesting that the grove of Yews of which this formed part was the church of the past. Thousands see in cathedral aisles the reproduction in stone of the pine-forest or the beech-wood. Standing before an ancient Yew they may see whence came the idea for those clustered columns. They actually exist in the bole of the Yew, which presents the appearance not of a single trunk, but of several trunks that have coalesced. This condition is due to the Yew continually pushing out new shoots from the lower part of its bole, which take an upright direction, and coalesce with the old wood.

Although the Yew is a large tree, it is by no means a tall tree: the height of full-grown Yews in this country ranging between fifteen and fifty feet, though they are said to attain a greater length in India. The bole of the Yew is short but massive, covered with a thin red bark, that flakes off in patches much after the manner of Plane-bark.

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Yew bark

Large specimens have a girth of from twenty-five to fifty feet—or even more. Such a circumference represents the growth of many centuries, for the annual growth-rings are very thin. It is this very slow growth that produces the hard, compact, and elastic wood that was so highly esteemed in the days of the long-bow. Not only is the timber elastic and strong, but it is exceedingly durable, so that it is said, “A post of Yew will outlast a post of iron.” Its branches start from the trunk at only a few feet from the ground, and, taking an almost horizontal direction, throw out a great number of leafy twigs, which provide a dense and extensive shade. These leaves are leathery in texture, curved somewhat after the manner of a reaping-hook, shiny and dark above, pale and unpolished below.

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yew tree male flower detail

Yew. A, male flowers.

We have already mentioned that the Yew is a diœcious tree—that is, one whose male and female blossoms are borne on separate trees—but the statement requires qualification to this extent, that occasionally a tree will be found bearing a branch or branches whose flowers are of the sex opposite to those covering the greater part of the tree. The male catkin is almost round, a quarter of an inch across, and contains about half a dozen yellow anthers, the base surrounded by dry overlapping scales. They may be found during February and March, in profusion on the underside of the boughs. The female flower is much smaller, and consists of a fleshy disk with a few scales at its base, and on this stands a single seed-egg. After fertilization of the seed-egg the disk develops into a red wax-like cup around the enlarging seed with its olive-green coat. The flesh of the cup is full of sweet mucilage, which makes the fruit acceptable to children, but the flavour is rather too mawkish to suit older tastes. Yew-berries are not poisonous, as sometimes supposed; neither is the contained kernel, which has a pleasant nutty flavour. Much has been said and written as to the toxic property of Yew-leaves, and it appears that though cattle and goats may browse upon them with impunity, horses and human beings pay the penalty of death for such indulgence. That word toxic, by the way, owes its significance to the Yew. The tree was named taxus in Latin, from the Greek toxon (a bow), because of the ancient repute of its wood for making that instrument. The tree was held to be poisonous, and so its name in the form of toxicum came to designate all poisons.

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bole or trunk of the yew tree

Bole of Yew.

There are some lines in In Memoriam which many readers of Tennyson have found as obscure as the shade of the Yew where they were conceived. The poet is addressing a venerable churchyard Yew in these words:—

“Old warder of these buried bones, And answering now my random stroke With fruitful cloud and living smoke; Dark Yew, that graspest at the stones And dippest towards the dreamless dead, To thee, too, comes the golden hour, When flower is feeling after flower.”

To any readers who have found a difficulty in understanding these lines, we would say: visit the Yew groves in February or March, when the male branches are thickly covered with their yellow flowers, and strike a branch with your stick. In response to the “random stroke” the pollen will fly off in a “fruitful cloud” or “living smoke,” some of it to be caught by the minute female blossoms. This is the Yew-tree’s “golden hour, when flower is feeling after flower.”

In the pre-gunpowder era, so important was it to have a sufficient supply of suitable wood for the making of the dreaded English long-bow, that the culture of the Yew was made the subject of a number of royal ordinances, which, of course, were allowed to drop out of observance when the bow was displaced by the firearm. And now when men plant Yews they are mostly the ornamental varieties, such as the Irish or Florence Court Yew, which originated as a wild sport on the mountains of Fermanagh about a hundred and forty years ago. Evelyn, it is true, revived the interest in the Yew as an ornamental tree, and it is with regret we add that at his suggestion it was first put to the base use called topiary work, which had hitherto been restricted to Box and Juniper. Evelyn showed how much more closely and continuously the Yew could be clipped without affecting its vitality, and the fashion he thus set—and regarded as a “merit”—was very generally followed during the next century. Many of the atrocities of those days are still with us, but only as survivals; and we can so often agree with Evelyn that we may forgive him for having led our ancestors astray in this matter. Evelyn was by no means blind to the good points of the tree in its natural condition, as witness this quotation, which is as true to-day as when it was written:—

“He that in winter should behold some of our highest hills in Surry clad with whole woods of these two last sorts of trees [Box and Yew], for divers miles in circuit (as in those delicious groves of them, belonging to the Honourable, my Noble Friend, the late Sir Adam Brown, of Bechworth Castle), from Box Hill, might, without the least violence to his imagination, easily fancy himself transported into some new or enchanted country; for if in any spot in England,

’tis here Eternal spring and summer all the year.”

Along the chalk range of which the celebrated Box Hill forms part will be found many fine examples of the Yew, as at Cherkley Court, near Leatherhead, where there is an actual Yew forest. There was a monstrous Yew at Brabourne in Kent, in Evelyn’s time, for he tells us he measured it, and found its girth to be only one inch short of fifty-nine feet. There are numerous giants of the species still living in quiet country churchyards, where they have probably served—as tradition states of those at Fountains Abbey—as a shelter for the builders of the ancient church during its erection. It is reputed to be the longest-lived of all trees, and it is to be hoped that no hindrance will be put in the way of these connections of the present with the far past living to their full natural limit, whatever it may be. It is naturally a tree of the uplands and lower hills, and shows a distinct preference for soils that contain plenty of lime.

The Irish Yew (var. fastigiata), to which passing reference was made, differs from the type in having all its branches growing erectly, after the manner of a Lombardy Poplar, and in the leaves being scattered promiscuously over the branchlets instead of being in two regular rows. It attains a height of twenty to twenty-five feet.

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fruit of the yew tree

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