- Taxus baccata
Taxus baccata Taxus baccata (European Yew) shoot with mature and immature cones Conservation status Scientific classification Kingdom: Plantae Division: Pinophyta Class: Pinopsida Order: Pinales Family: Taxaceae Genus: Taxus Species: T. baccata Binomial name Taxus baccata
Taxus baccata is a conifer native to western, central and southern Europe, northwest Africa, northern Iran and southwest Asia. It is the tree originally known as yew, though with other related trees becoming known, it may be now known as the English yew, or European yew.
It is a small- to medium-sized evergreen tree, growing 10–20 metres (33–66 ft) (exceptionally up to 28 m/92 ft) tall, with a trunk up to 2 metres (6 ft 7 in) (exceptionally 4 m/13 ft) diameter. The bark is thin, scaly brown, coming off in small flakes aligned with the stem. The leaves are lanceolate, flat, dark green, 1–4 centimetres (0.39–1.6 in) long and 2–3 millimetres (0.079–0.12 in) broad, arranged spirally on the stem, but with the leaf bases twisted to align the leaves in two flat rows either side of the stem, except on erect leading shoots where the spiral arrangement is more obvious. The leaves are highly poisonous.
The seed cones are highly modified, each cone containing a single seed 4–7 millimetres (0.16–0.28 in) long partly surrounded by a modified scale which develops into a soft, bright red berry-like structure called an aril, 8–15 millimetres (0.31–0.59 in) long and wide and open at the end. The arils are mature 6–9 months after pollination, and with the seed contained are eaten by thrushes, waxwings and other birds, which disperse the hard seeds undamaged in their droppings; maturation of the arils is spread over 2–3 months, increasing the chances of successful seed dispersal. The seeds themselves are extremely poisonous and bitter, but are opened and eaten by some bird species including Hawfinches and Great Tits. The aril is not poisonous, and is gelatinous and very sweet tasting. The male cones are globose, 3–6 millimetres (0.12–0.24 in) diameter, and shed their pollen in early spring. It is mostly dioecious, but occasional individuals can be variably monoecious, or change sex with time.
It is relatively slow growing, and can be very long-lived, with the maximum recorded trunk diameter of 4 metres probably only being reached in about 2,000 years. The potential age of yews is impossible to determine accurately and is subject to much dispute. There is rarely any wood as old as the entire tree, while the boughs themselves often hollow with age, making ring counts impossible. There are confirmed claims as high as 5,000-9,500 years, but other evidence based on growth rates and archaeological work of surrounding structures suggests the oldest trees (such as the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, Scotland) are more likely to be in the range of 2,000 years. Even with this lower estimate, Taxus baccata is the longest-living plant in Europe. One characteristic contributing to its longevity is that it is able to split under the weight of advanced growth without succumbing to disease in the fracture, as do most other trees.
It is considered by several authors that the oldest yew tree in Spain is located in Bermiego, Asturias. It is known as «Teixu l'Iglesia» in the Asturian language. It is 15 metres tall with a trunk perimeter of 7 metres and a crown diameter of 10 metres. It was planted around 1160. It was declared Natural Monument on April 27, 1995 by the Asturian Government and is protected by the Plan of Natural Resources.
In Great Britain and in Normandy, there are many yews dating back around the year 1000 and some of them around 500. The Fortingall Yew is commonly believed to be the oldest one, with an estimated age between 2000 and 4000 years old, growing in a Scottish church yard. Other well-known yews include the Llangernyw Yew, Caesarsboom, and the Florencecourt Yew.
Most parts of the tree are toxic, except the bright red aril surrounding the seed, enabling ingestion and dispersal by birds. The major toxin is the alkaloid taxane. The foliage remains toxic even when wilted or dried. Horses have the lowest tolerance, with a lethal dose of 200–400 mg/kg body weight, but cattle, pigs, and other livestock are only slightly less vulnerable. Symptoms include staggering gait, muscle tremors, convulsions, collapse, difficulty breathing, coldness and eventually heart failure. However, death occurs so rapidly that many times the symptoms are missed. Fatal poisoning in humans is very rare, only occurring after eating a lot of yew foliage. The lethal dose is reported to be between 50 and 100 grams. The wood is also poisonous. Some bow makers are reputed to have died from the frequent handling of the wood in their craft.
Taxonomy and naming
The word yew is from Proto-Germanic *īwa-, possibly originally a loanword from Gaulish ivos, compare Irish ēo, Welsh ywen, French if (see Eihwaz for a discussion). Baccata is Latin for bearing red berries. The word yew as it was originally used seems to refer to the colour brown. The yew (μίλοσ) was known to Theophrastus, who noted its preference for mountain coolness and shade, it evergreen character and its slow growth.
On the other side, most romance languages kept the Latin word taxus : Italian tasso (Corsican tassu), Occitan teis (Catalan teix, Gasconic tech), Spanish tejo, Portuguese teixo (Galician teixu) and Romanian tisā, same root as toxic. In Russian, the same root (presumably borrowed from Romanian) is preserved: tiss (тис).
The common yew was one of the many species first described by Linnaeus. Along with around 30 other species, it is classified in the family Taxaceae, which is now firmly classified as a conifer in the order Pinales.
Uses and traditions
In the ancient Celtic world, the yew tree (*eburos) had extraordinary importance; a passage by Caesar narrates that Catuvolcus, chief of the Eburones poisoned himself with yew rather than submit to Rome (Gallic Wars 6: 31). Similarly, Florus notes that when the Cantabrians were under siege by the legate Gaius Furnius in 22 BC, most of them took their lives either by the sword or by fire or by a poison extracted ex arboribus taxeis, that is, from the yew tree (2: 33, 50-51). In a similar way, Orosius notes that when the Astures were besieged at Mons Medullius, they preferred to die by their own swords or by the yew tree poison rather than surrender (6, 21, 1.)
In Asturian tradition and culture the yew tree has had a real link with the land, the people, the ancestors and the ancient religion. It was tradition on All Saints Day to bring a branch of a yew tree to the tombs of those who died recently so they will find the guide in their return to the Land of Shadows. The yew tree can be found near chapels, churches and cemeteries since ancient times as a symbol of the transcendence of death, and is usually found in the main squares of the villages where people celebrated the open councils that served as a way of general assembly to rule the village affairs.
The yew is often found in church yards from England, Ireland and France. In France, the oldest yew trees are located in Norman church yards and a chapel was very often laid out in the hollow trunk. Some examples can be found in La Haye-de-Routot or La Lande-Patry. It is said, that up to 40 people could stand inside one of the La-Haye-de-Routot yew trees. Indeed, some of these trees are exceptionally large (over 3 m diameter) and may be over 2,000 years old. Sometimes monks planted yews in the middle of their cloister, like in Muckross Abbey (Ireland) or abbaye de Jumièges (France). Some ancient yew trees are located at St Mary the Virgin Church, Overton-on-Dee in Wales.
It has been suggested that the enormous sacred evergreen at the Temple at Uppsala was an ancient yew tree. The Christian church commonly found it expedient to take over these existing sacred sites for churches. It is sometimes suggested that these were planted as a symbol of long life or trees of death. An explanation that the yews were planted to discourage farmers and drovers from letting their animals wander into the burial grounds, with the poisonous foliage being the disincentive, may be intentionally prosaic. A more likely reason is that fronds and branches of yew were often used as a substitute for palms on Palm Sunday.
In 1021, Avicenna introduced the medicinal use of T. baccata for phytotherapy in The Canon of Medicine. He named this herbal drug as "Zarnab" and used it as a cardiac remedy. This was the first known use of a calcium channel blocker drug, which were not in wide use in the Western world until the 1960s.
The precursors of chemotherapy drug Paclitaxel can be derived from the leaves of European Yew, which is a more renewable source than the bark of the Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia). This ended a point of conflict in the early 1990s; many environmentalists, including Al Gore, had opposed the harvesting of paclitaxel for cancer treatments. Docetaxel (another taxane) can then be obtained by semi-synthetic conversion from the precursors.
In the Central Himalayas, the plant is used as a treatment for breast and ovarian cancer.
Yew is also associated with Wales and England because of the longbow, an early weapon of war developed in northern Europe, and as the English longbow the basis for a medieval tactical system. Yew is the wood of choice for longbow making; the bows are constructed so that the heartwood of yew is on the inside of the bow while the sapwood is on the outside. This takes advantage of the natural properties of yew wood since the heartwood resists compression while the sapwood resists stretching. This increased the strength and efficiency of the bow. Much yew is knotty and twisted, so unsuitable for bowmaking; most trunks do not give good staves and even in a good trunk much wood has to be discarded.
The trade of yew wood to England for longbows was such that it depleted the stocks of good-quality, mature yew over a vast area. The first documented import of yew bowstaves to England was in 1294. In 1350 there was a serious shortage, and Henry IV of England ordered his royal bowyer to enter private land and cut yew and other woods. In 1470 compulsory archery practice was renewed, and hazel, ash, and laburnum were specifically allowed for practice bows. Supplies still proved insufficient, until by the Statute of Westminster in 1472, every ship coming to an English port had to bring four bowstaves for every tun. Richard III of England increased this to ten for every tun. This stimulated a vast network of extraction and supply, which formed part of royal monopolies in southern Germany and Austria. In 1483, the price of bowstaves rose from two to eight pounds per hundred, and in 1510 the Venetians would only sell a hundred for sixteen pounds. In 1507 the Holy Roman Emperor asked the Duke of Bavaria to stop cutting yew, but the trade was profitable, and in 1532 the royal monopoly was granted for the usual quantity "if there are that many." In 1562, the Bavarian government sent a long plea to the Holy Roman Emperor asking him to stop the cutting of yew, and outlining the damage done to the forests by its selective extraction, which broke the canopy and allowed wind to destroy neighbouring trees. In 1568, despite a request from Saxony, no royal monopoly was granted because there was no yew to cut, and the next year Bavaria and Austria similarly failed to produce enough yew to justify a royal monopoly. Forestry records in this area in the 17th century do not mention yew, and it seems that no mature trees were to be had. The English tried to obtain supplies from the Baltic, but at this period bows were being replaced by guns in any case.
Today European Yew is widely used in landscaping and ornamental horticulture. Due to its dense, dark green, mature foliage, and its tolerance of even very severe pruning, it is used especially for formal hedges and topiary. Its relatively slow growth rate means that in such situations it needs to be clipped only once per year (in late summer).
Well over 200 cultivars of T. baccata have been named. The most popular of these are the Irish Yew (T. baccata 'Fastigiata'), a fastigiate cultivar of the European Yew selected from two trees found growing in Ireland, and the several cultivars with yellow leaves, collectively known as "Golden Yew".
European Yew will tolerate growing in a wide range of soils and situations, including shallow chalk soils and shade, although in deep shade its foliage may be less dense. However it cannot tolerate waterlogging, and in poorly-draining situations is liable to succumb to the root-rotting pathogen Phytophthora cinnamomi.
In Europe, Taxus baccata grows naturally north to Molde in southern Norway, but it is used in gardens further north. It is also popular as a Bonsai in many parts of Europe and makes a handsome small to large sized bonsai.
Clippings from ancient specimens in the UK, including the Fortingall Yew, are being taken to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh to form a mile-long hedge. The purpose of this "Yew Conservation Hedge Project" is to maintain the DNA of Taxus baccata. The species is threatened by felling, partly due to rising demand from pharmaceutical companies, and disease.
- Thomas Gray's poem Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard refers to the 'yew-tree's shade' in line 13.
- The Old English poem Beowulf describes a shield made of wood from a yew tree.
- Arthur Conan Doyle refers to the yew tree in the Song of the Bow from his novel The White Company. In Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead in the Yew Alley, a narrow walkway bounded on one side by Baskerville Hall and on the other by a thick hedge of yew trees.
- The yew tree is an iconic reference in the poetry of Sylvia Plath, particularly in several poems from her collection of poetry Ariel. (See "The Moon and the Yew Tree", "Little Fugue", and "Daddy".)
- In Shakesphere's Titus Andronicus, Act 2 Scene 3, Tamora the Goth queen exclaims: "No sooner had they told this hellish tale / But straight they told me they would bind me here / Unto the body of a dismal yew"
- In the Irish myth "The Love of Chu Chulainn and Fand", the warrior and the goddess meet beneath a yew tree's head at every quarter moon.
- In John Webster's The White Devil a yew tree (spelt 'Eu') features heavily in an important recount of a dream sequence in Act 1 Scene 2, an ambiguous passage that can be interpreted as perhaps encouraging a double murder: "...both were strucke dead by that sacred Eu,/ in that base shallow grave that was their due."
- John Keats refers to the yew in his "Ode on Melancholy", writing, "Make not your rosary of yew-berries, / Nor let the beetle, nor the death moth be / Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl / A partner in your sorrow's mysteries..." (lines 5-8).
- In Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem "In Memoriam: A.H.H." the yew above Arthur Hallam's grave is addressed: "Old yew, which graspest at the stones/ That name the underlying dead,/ Thy fibres net the dreamless head,/ Thy roots are wrapped about the bones" (II, ln. 1-4).
- A yew tree is featured prominently in William Wordsworth's poems "Lines Left Upon a Seat in a Yew Tree" and "Yew-Trees".
- In Alexandre Dumas's novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond Dantès is imprisoned in the Château d'If, which literally translates to "Castle of the Yew" (If is a small island near Marseilles, and the name may or may not derive from the word which means yew).
- George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession uses a yew tree in the yard of Reverend Samuel Gardner.
- In Section V of Little Gidding from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets (the last section of the poem), Eliot claims: "The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree/ Are of equal duration". In his poem, "Ash-Wednesday", he mentions the yew five times: "The silent sister veiled in white and blue/ Between the yews, behind the garden god, / Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but/ spoke no word"; "Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew"; "Will the veiled sister between the slender/ Yew trees pray for those who offend her"; "But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away/ Let the other yew be shaken and reply".
- In J. R. R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion, Beleg Strongbow uses a bow made of yew. In The Hobbit, the eagle king complains of the men of Wilderland using bows made of yew to shoot at his people. Bard the Bowman uses a yew bow to fatally shoot the dragon Smaug.
- The murderer in Agatha Christie's mystery A Pocket Full of Rye uses taxine (taxol), a poison derived from yew, to kill the victim. The victim lives at Yewtree Lodge.
- In Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea series, both the wizard Ged and the Master Summoner carry staves of yew.
- In J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Voldemort uses a wand made of yew. Additionally, the Malfoy Manor is surrounded by yew hedges, and the graveyard in which Voldemort makes his return has a yew tree.
- The yew is the subject of Swedish author Gunnar D. Hansson's "lyrical monography" Idegransöarna (The Yew-tree Islands, 1994, untranslated to English). Hansson explores the yew in its uses (medicinal, lyrical, in place-names, etc) and its historical meaning. He speculates about the yew, and weaves a tale of prose poems, essays and lyrics, about the yew; the book takes the reader close to the yew in its relation to Hittites, Vikings, medicine, Robin Hood, Christmas, heathendom, etymology and mythology.
- The Great Chain of Being, which proposes a strict, hierarchical order for the beings (divine entities, animals, and plants) in the universe, designates the yew as the lowest form of tree among plants.
- In Erin Hunter's Warriors novel series, yew berries are said to be poisonous to cats, and are referred to as "deathberries". Several vital plot points are based around yew, like Yellowfang intentionally feeding her son Brokentail yew berries and killing him. In a later book in the series, Darkstripe's disloyalty to his Clan becomes obvious when he feeds Sorrelkit, who had followed him and heard him plotting with Tigerstar, some yew berries in an attempt to kill her, but thanks to immediate medical attention, Sorrelkit survives and reveals what Darkstripe had been doing.
- In Brian Jacques' novel Redwall, Constance the Badger uses a yew sapling to build a crossbow, with which they hope to kill Cluny the Scourge.
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- ^ Theophrastus, Enquiry into Plants, iii.10.2; iv.1.3, etc.
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- ^ Hillier Nurseries, "The Hillier Manual Of Trees And Shrubs", David & Charles, 1998, p863
- ^ D'Cruz, Mark. "Ma-Ke Bonsai Care Guide for Taxus baccata". http://makebonsai.com/guide/bonsailink.asp?quicklink=5065&name=Taxus_baccata. Retrieved 2011-11-19.
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- Hartzell, H. (1991) The yew tree: a thousand whispers: biography of a species, Eugene: Hulogosi, ISBN 0-938493-14-0
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