Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Yew (Taxus baccata)

Yew Berries in a churchyard in Oakham, Rutland.
Photo by Simon Garbutt (Wikimedia Commons)

Yew is an evergreen tree or shrub. Also known as Common Yew, English Yew and European Yew. It is native to Britain but can also be found in much of Europe, Asia and Africa. In Britain it is often found in and around sacred sites including graveyards and churchyards. Yews are often used as ornamental trees and hedges in domestic gardens.

Yews are long lived and considered one of the most ancient trees in Europe. The Fortingall Yew in Scotland is estimated to be around 5000 years old although it is difficult to gauge the exact age of these trees by counting the rings because a fungus often eats away at the tree leaving hollow rotten wood in the centre.


Yew has been used in folk medicine to induce menstruation, abortion and to treat diphtheria, tapeworm, tonsillitis, epilepsy and rheumatism. Native Americans used extracts for arthritis, fever and rheumatism. The wood itself is very hard and can be used to make furniture and tools. It can also be used for fuel and burns well as firewood.

Growing methods

Yew seeds have a low viability and are slow to germinate. They can be grown in pots but are probably best kept outside because they require exposure to the cold to germinate. Germination may take two winters or longer. A quicker option would be to take hardwood cuttings of the stem tips in late autumn. Cuttings should take around 3 months to root. Young plants should be kept moist but not over watered. Once established they can be trimmed or pruned hard without any undue damage.

Yew are slow growing but once established will provide around 30 cms of growth a year. They grow in most well drained soils but will also tolerate deep shade and drought. They make excellent hedges and are often used in topiary. Yew produces a dense evergreen canopy and a litter of needles thereby discouraging any plant growth underneath.

Raw edible parts

Nearly all parts of the Yew are highly poisonous containing toxic alkaloids including taxines or taxanes. It takes 50g - 100g of Yew needles to cause death in humans (Traditional Herbal Medicines: a guide to their safer use by Dr L. Karalliedde and Dr I. Gawarammana). Horses, cattle and other animals are also vunerable to poisoning. Poison will remain in clippings or prunings so care must be taken disposing of garden refuse containing Yew.

One part which is safe to eat is the soft red fleshy fruit, called an aril, which is found around the seed (see photo). These are available from female trees only. This red glutinous flesh is gorgeous, gooey, soft, sweet and highly recommended. To eat gently pop out the seed with thumb and finger and discard. The seed must not be chewed or swallowed under any circumstances. Yew fruits are available right now so keep an eye out for them. Shazzie, the Doxtor, shows how to eat them on this following YouTube video.

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