European Yew – Taxus baccata
Other Names: Common Yew, English Yew, Tree of Immortality, Eibe (German), tasso (Italian), ywen (Welsh), sorkhdār (Persian).
Distinctive Characteristics: Yews are known for their incredible regenerative ability at any stage of life, earning the name "the Tree of Life." They form epicormic sprouts, budding from anywhere just beneath the bark on the trunk. As a Yew ages, it is naturally prone to hollowing out, creating a cavern as large as 10 ft. (3 m) across, sometimes eventually becoming a shell of its former self or a ring of fragments which may, centuries later, have become encased in secondary wood and thus may appear as separate trunks. The wood of these slow-growing trees is hard and durable, and these empty shells actually have greater tensile strength than a younger, solid trunk. Yews can send down tendrils from the center of the inside of a hollow, rooting into the ground and creating one or more entirely new trunks within the old one, eventually replacing it, after thousands of years.
These shade-tolerant evergreens are unlike most other conifers; in place of cones, they bear a unique single seed surrounded by a fleshy covering called an aril. These small, red, berry-like fruits covering the seeds appear only on female trees (although some trees have been known to change sex), and are the only nontoxic part of the Yew. All other tree parts are highly poisonous to humans and most animals, due to alkaloids called taxoids.
Once widely abundant in Europe, the remaining ancient Yews that were spared the axe in the 13th to 16th century survived primarily in formal gardens and in the sanctuaries of church graveyards, monasteries, and abbeys, many of which are thought to be former pagan sites.
Distribution: The adaptable genus of Taxus has a wide climatic and geographic range through much of the northern hemisphere. Taxus baccata is native to western, central and southern Europe including the British Isles, to northwest Africa, northwest Iran and Turkey. Elevation: up to 8,200 ft. (2,500 m).
Ecosystem: In temperate climates, the Yew may grow as a solitary tree or in clusters, or in mixed coniferous or broadleaf forests as an understory tree or shrub, with Beech, Oak, Ash, Maples, Firs, Spruces, Hornbeams, Lindens, and Elms, with understory companions such as Holly, Hawthorn and Myrtle. It is also associated with juniper, hazel, fern, bracken, wild strawberry, ground ivy, blackberry, common nettle, woodruff, and cyclamen.
Maximum Age: Debatable; possibly over 3,000 years. The European Yew is the oldest continually living tree species in Europe (15 million years), while the adaptable and resilient genus Taxus dates back 140 million years. The European Yew also has the longest lifespan of any tree in Europe, and one of the longest in the entire world. However, dating ancient hollow trees by counting rings is impossible.
Maximum Height and Girth: 92 ft. (28 m) in height; 40 ft. (12 m) in circumference.
Animal Community: While a wide variety of birds and mammals eat the red flesh of the aril, only deer, rabbits, and hares are able to eat the leaves without harm. Mammals such as grey squirrels, door mice, badgers, foxes, martens, wild boars, and even brown bears eat the arils. Birds such as starlings, thrushes, blackbirds, robins, jays, and pheasants eat the aril and disperse the seeds, while green finches, bullfinches, marsh tits, great tits, and nuthatches eat the seeds. The species feasting on Yew trees in turn attract larger mammalian and avian predators, thus supporting the food chain. Bees create hives and owls create nests in the hollows. The yew gall midge, specific to the European Yew, creates tiny artichoke-like galls on the tips of branches, but is no threat to the tree.
Medicine: Despite its deadly toxicity, the European Yew was used cross-culturally as a potent folk medicine for thousands of years. In ancient Rome, yew poison was used as an antidote for snakebite. Hildegard von Bingen (1148–79) used the smoke to treat colds. It was also used as an insecticide and to treat skin ulcers, insect bites, rabies, worms, and parasites.
Tools and Objects: The oldest wooden artifact yet found in the world (produced in the Hoxnian interglacial period, 200,000–300,000 years ago) is a hunting weapon made from yew wood. Artifacts of Yew wood from pre-historic to pre-industrial times include bowls, cups, plates, ladles, spindles, needles, looms, awls, nails, wedges, tool handles, and spoons. Yew was one of the woods used by the Egyptians for making sarcophagi and carvings. Yew wood was the wood of choice for Stone Age hunting bows (the oldest dating to the sixth millennium BC), and also one of the most important trees in the history of European warfare, as its wood was used exclusively for making longbows, the principle weapon employed in Europe for about 400 years. The part of Yew wood where the heartwood meets the sapwood is both sturdy and flexible, and so was favored as bow material. When all the Yews in England had been cut down, the Yew trade in mainland Europe became both big business and big politics. This led to the near-destruction of the trees throughout the rest of Europe. By 1595, Queen Elizabeth had decreed that the longbow be replaced by guns—not for more efficient weaponry, but due to the lack of suitable Yew staves. In the 17th and 19th centuries, the rare wood was prized for making fine furniture, veneers, inlays, and grandfather clocks.
Art and Ceremony: The Yew is found throughout in archeological history, mythology, and folklore wherever it grew. Yew needles have been found artistically rendered on artifacts cross-culturally throughout the ancient world. The oldest wooden musical instruments found are a set of Yew pipes dated between 2102 and 2085 BC. Yew wood was prized to make lutes. Sticks were used for divination (Celtic), magic wands, and sprigs for dowsing. Yews are important to Druids past and present. It is the 20th tree in the Celtic Tree Ogham alphabet. The Yew may have been the original evergreen Christmas tree at Germanic Yuletide, with its red "ornaments."
Modern Uses: At the end of the 19th century, the Yew made a comeback sculpted as topiary or maze hedge in formal gardens. The wood has been used to make billiard balls, eggcups, and even toothpicks. Today, the wood is prized for furniture, veneer and fine woodturning. Modern healthcare applications include experiments in treating epilepsy, diphtheria, rheumatism, arthritis, and tonsillitis, and for inducing miscarriage. Wild Yew trees have been over-harvested for tumor-active compounds (paclitaxel, later docetaxel), to produce anti-cancer drugs (Taxol®, Taxotere®). Now, for this purpose, farmed trees are mostly trimmed for their foliage, instead of chopping down the entire tree for the bark.
Threats and Conservation: European Yews never fully regenerated after hundreds of years of deforestation. Many old trees are neglected. Although not officially listed as threatened, the Yew has become extinct in many areas, and is a protected species in Germany.