A meeting with a remarkable tree – said to be over a thousand years old. The location is the Wilts/Hants border…
The English Yew.
Ah, my favourite tree must be the Yew. Taxus baccata or, what a fabulous tree.
The Yew is in fact a conifer and formed part of the collection of conifers that once formed forests before broadleaved trees evolved, hence it’s magic. Some specimens are believed to be several thousands of years old and many certainly pre dating Christ, the idea that church yard Yews were planted in the grounds of churches has to be reversed, churches followed the Yew.
The general rule regarding the growth of Yews is that a main trunk is formed during its first 200 yrs of life and then
Produces new shoots and the trunk begins to hollow out giving the tree a reputation for immortality, a symbol of life after death.
Even though it is a conifer it produces no cones but a fruit often red but some times a dull orange in colour, beware these are toxic, and can kill you if consumed. There has been research into these toxins in regards to its possible beneficial effect on cancer treatment. The fruit is distributed by birds that devour them and the seeds then take up to 4 years to germinate.
Many legends and folk lore surround this tree. Yews mysteriously springing up in the graves of lovers, English archers meeting in churches for blessing before battle and gathering yew branches to make long- bows the wood being scared, early ancient kings that wore broaches called kings wheels representing the cycle of life, death and regeneration in the next life. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth Hecate’s cauldron contained slips of yew, silver’d in the moons eclipse a reference to its toxic qualities and the belief that storm broken branches contained the force of the storm. It was considered that to cut down a yew tree would bring nothing but bad luck hence we still have some very ancient specimens in this country.
Culpeper mentions the toxic qualities of yew stating that it is the most active vegetable poison in the world, indeed it was thought at one time that to sleep under a yew tree would bring about a sleep that one would never wake up from.
Its uses as a timber a varied it’s a hard golden yellow colour used for furniture and panelling, as well as fence posts and ships masts. It burns very hot like Oak, its strength was reckoned by Anglo-Saxons to be equal to that of iron, it’s also been used for long-bows, and dagger handles.
Respect this tree, it has a long history and the yew that you come across maybe the last vestige of ancient woodland long gone. I know of an ancient forest of Yew’s where the trees form a cathedral like canopy where nothing grows due to the lack of day light. The ambiance in this wood I can only describe as spiritual, it’s some where I go perhaps twice a year to escape and spend the day just sitting and being, in silence under ancient trees.