Yew (Taxus baccata
) is a conifer native to western, central and southern Europe, northwest Africa, northern Iran and southwest Asia.
It is is extremely long lived with some examples over 2,000 years old.
Yew 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 similar to pine needles but flat and dark green. They're 1 - 4cm long and 2 - 3mm broad, arranged spirally on the stem.
The leaves are highly poisonous.
The seed cones containing a single seed 4 - 7mm long partly surrounded by a soft, bright red berry-like structure, called an aril, that's 8 - 15mm and open at the end.
The arils (the fleshy part of the berries) are mature 6–9 months after pollination. The seed contained within the berries are eaten by thrushes, waxwings and other birds, which disperse the hard seeds undamaged in their droppings.
The seeds themselves are extremely poisonous and bitter, but are opened and eaten by some bird species including Hawfinches and Great Tits. The flesh of the red barries is not poisonous, and is gelatinous and very sweet tasting - but we don't recommend trying it - in case you swallow one of the poisonous seeds!
It is relatively slow growing, but can be very long-lived, with the maximum recorded trunk diameter of 4 metres probably only being reached in about 2,000 years.
There is rarely any wood as old as the entire tree, while the boughs themselves often hollow with age. This makes ageing the tree, by counting its rings, impossible.
There are confirmed claims of yew trees as high as 5,000 - 9,500 years old, 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, yew trees are the longest living plant in Europe.
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. The wood remains poisonous after it is cut. Fatal poisoning in humans is very rare.
Yew is a often used as hedging and is perfect as a topiary plant because of its dense foliage. While most parts of the yew tree are poisonous, anti-cancer compounds are harvested from the foliage and used in modern medicine.
Mythology and symbolism
The long-lived yew tree is an ancient symbol of everlasting life because, when its old branches droop to the ground, they can take root to form new trunks.
DISCLAMER : Any uses for trees or tree extracts. whether edible or medicinal, have not been tried or tested by EFORESTS.CO.UK so please take caution and seek proper advice before attempting any recipes or medicinal extracts from any of the trees listed on our site.
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