Enchanting Yew Trees

The mid-Devon village where I currently reside is host to an impressive veteran yew tree; it is probably the oldest living thing in the district, and it dominates the small churchyard of St. Peter’s. The village name is Zeal Monachorum, which translates as ‘Cell of the Monks’ in Latin, reflecting its long history as a settlement. The yew tree has been in-situ for at least five hundred years and must have stood strong throughout the many changes taking place around it over time. Growing up in this village, the yew tree became such a familiar sight that it was easy to forget it had lived for so many generations before mine. Since returning to live in the village last year, I have been reacquainted with the splendour of this tree and I decided to find out more about yew trees and their significance in our history.

The Common/English/European yew Taxus baccata L. is an evergreen conifer, native to mainland Europe, Scandinavia, the UK, Republic of Ireland, Madeira, and parts of North Africa and the Middle East {1}. Virtually all parts of the yew tree contain highly toxic alkaloids that prevent human cell division, and they have been utilised for treating certain types of cancer {2}. The species is slow-growing and has the potential to survive for centuries; there are a few ancient individuals still alive today that may have lived through the past two millennia or more.

The Ancient Yew Group has documented Britain’s ancient, veteran and notable yew trees in their online Gazetteer {3}. Veteran yew trees are generally between 500 to 1200 years of age, whilst ancient yew trees are at least 800 years old {4}. The overlap is present due to the difficulty in precise dating. There are currently 216 ancient yew trees in England {5}; Wales and Scotland are also host to many impressive specimens. One churchyard in Defynnog, Wales is host to four ancient yew trees including one with a girth of over 11.5 metres, whilst the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, Scotland has an exceptional girth of over 17 metres {6}; these are potentially two of the oldest trees in Britain.

Dating ancient yew trees is a tricky business due to a number of factors. These include the process of the heartwood rotting away with age, which eliminates the means of accurate carbon dating {7}. Due to the slow growing nature of the species, a trunk of particularly large girth will generally represent an ancient specimen, but the greatest size does not always translate to the greatest age. Yew trees often experience erratic growth periods during their latter stages of life, which means the standard formulas used for aging a yew tree based on the girth of its trunk may provide erroneous results {8}. Future technological advances and findings are likely to increase the possibilities for greater accuracy in dating, and potentially expose an element of the secret history of our ancient yews.

Yew trees have long been incorporated into human belief systems. The early Druids in parts of Britain and mainland Europe believed that they would go through a process of reincarnation after death and they perceived the yew as being able to provide protection to their souls whilst passing to their next life {9}. Early tribes in Germany and Scandinavia assigned the yew the title of ‘Tree of Life’ and for them the yew represented the interconnectivity of all living beings throughout Planet Earth, whilst Christians saw the evergreen yew as representative of everlasting life and the resurrection {9}, and this is the likely to be the reason why the yew tree was planted in my village churchyard.

Practical uses of the yew tree include its utilisation as a material for creating longbows; the most prized yew wood for use in longbow construction was imported from the Italian Alps or the Pyrenees of Spain {10}. The scientific name for the yew ‘Taxus’ may have derived from the Greek word ‘taxon’ which means ‘bow’ {11}. The longbow was developed as a tactical weapon by the Celts in Wales during the 1100s, and was adopted and used extensively by the British army against French forces during the Hundred Years War, 1337-1453 {12}. There was such enthusiasm for the longbow as a prime weapon that all Sunday sporting activities, except archery, were banned from the early 1300s, to encourage men to hone their skill with the longbow {13}. It is perhaps ironic that wood from the tree that was revered as representing everlasting life and resurrection was used to create weapons of war that would end many lives.

Our ancient, weird and wonderful yew trees deserve to be respected, appreciated and protected. Their long histories, the full extent of which is still unknown, and their importance within former cultures and historic events, as well as current benefits, bestow them with something akin to a legendary status. If you feel inspired to learn more about yew trees, would like to find out if there is a significant specimen in your locality, or need advice on conserving an old yew under your care then visit the Ancient Yew Group website for a wealth of information.

There is something life-affirming and humbling about being in the presence of such an aged and wizened tree; with their twisted trunks, deeply furrowed bark and hollowed centres they form a striking natural feature and are something to be admired.

References

{1}Distribution and protection of European Yew Taxus Baccata L. Hageneder, F., 2007 viewed on 20/04/2016. http://www.ancient-yew.org/userfiles/file/Yew_Stands_in_Europe.pdf

{2}Yew Clippings Needed, Botanic Garden. University of Bristol, 2013 (viewed on 13/04/2016). http://www.bristol.ac.uk/botanic-garden/news/2013/56.html

{3}Historic Churchyard Yews, Historic Churches (pages 36-38). Hindson, 2015. http://www.buildingconservation.com/books/churches2015/index.html#36/z

{4}The Overlap of Ages in the Groups Ancient, Veteran and Notable. Ancient Yew Group, no date (viewed on 18/04/2016). http://www.ancient-yew.org/userfiles/file/Overlapping%20age%20groups.pdf

{5}What’s New April 2016, Yew Map. Ancient Yew Group, 2016. http://www.ancient-yew.org/news.php

{6}Yew/Yews at Fortingall Scotland. Ancient Yew Group, 2001 (viewed on 12/04/2016).

http://www.ancient-yew.org/treeInfo.php?link=447

{7}Aging theYew: no core, no curve? Ancient Yew Group. Kinmonth, 2005 (viewed on 11/04/2016). http://www.buildingconservation.com/books/churches2015/index.html#36/z

{8}The Growth Rate of Taxus Baccata: An Empherically Generated Growth Curve. Hindson, 2007 (viewed on 13/04/2016). http://www.ancient-yew.org/userfiles/file/The%20Growth%20Rate%20of%20Taxus%20Baccata.pdf

{9}FAQs, Ancient Yew Group. Hageneder, 2005 (viewed on 11/04/2016).

http://www.ancient-yew.org/s.php/frequently-asked-questions/2/2

{10}Weapon of War. English Warbow Society, no date (viewed on 13/04/2016). http://www.theenglishwarbowsociety.com/warbow_EN.html

{11}Taxus baccata, yew. The Poison Garden website. Robertson, 2016 (viewed on 13/04/2016). http://www.thepoisongarden.co.uk/atoz/taxus_baccata.htm

{12}The Longbow. Historic UK, 2015. http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/The-Longbow/

{13}The Longbow, The History Learning Site. Trueman, 2016 (viewed on 21/04/2016). http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/medieval-england/the-longbow/

Gazetteer of Ancient, Veteran and Significant Yews. Ancient Yew Group, 2016 (viewed on 13/04/2016). http://www.ancient-yew.org/gazetteer.php

The Ancient Yews of Britain: Our Neglected Heritage, Ancient Yew Group. Anderson, 2005. http://www.ancient-yew.org/mi.php/the-ancient-yews-of-britain/73

Estimating the Age of Large and Veteran Trees in Britain, Forestry Commission. White, 1998 (viewed on 12/04/2016). http://www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/fcin12.pdf/$file/fcin12.pdf

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ESKINNER

I grew up in the Devonshire countryside, where I developed a great passion and respect for nature and the environment. I completed a BSc degree in Environmental Studies in 2006, and following that I gained practical skills in a countryside ranger apprenticeship, worked in the organic farming and growing sector for over 3 years, and as an ecological surveyor for 5 years. My partner and I moved back to Devon last year, and I have been re-connecting with many of the natural spaces that I grew up with down here. I have been writing wildlife and environmental pieces for a local organic farm, which have been successful, and I am keen to explore the world of wildlife writing further: this looked like a good place to start.

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1 Response

  1. Liz Cordin says:

    I never knew there was so much to know about yew trees. So strange isn’t it that they made long bows from them and them also being symbols of eternal life. Thanks for the knowledge Eskinner!

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