The yew tree is one of the oldest trees in existence. It has a mystical, historical and medicinal past, dating back to the Jurassic periods and possibly before. It grows wild in both tree and bush form in many parts of the world, including the United States, Great Britain and Ireland. The tree has been revered in song and folklore for millennia. Its uses are many, making this tree a true marvel in the horticultural, religious and mythical worlds.
The yew is a beautiful hardwood, evergreen tree, with red heartwood and white sapwood. The winding branches will produce green needles or leaves, which may be a yellowish-green when new needles appear. On older branches, when the needles are ready to die and fall, they may turn a reddish colour. The bark has a rust coloured tint to it. Male species flower in late winter to early spring, with a catkin of pollen, that is carried by the wind to other areas. Female trees produce flowers and red berries, with only one seed per flower or berry. This tree can grow under the cover of other trees, even though it can grow to be 80ft tall with possibly multiple trunks in one tree, or one massive winding trunk.
Most parts of the tree are highly toxic if ingested to humans and animals alike. In earlier times, the toxins were used to create poison for darts, suicides, assassination, hunting and warfare. Even though the seeds are toxic, the flesh of the berries are not, making them edible to birds, who then excrete or pick out the seeds, planting new trees. Before modern medicine, the berries were used to stimulate heart functions and cardiovascular systems. The leaves of all species produce an enzyme called taxol, which is now used in cancer research and treatments, as it stops cell mutations.
Religion and Mythology
Because of yew's mystical symbolism, judges' staffs were made from English yew trees in Teutonic areas of Europe, and the tree was planted to guard in cemeteries. The belief was that the yew tree warded off evil spirits and helped people find the afterlife. A sprig of yew was used to help locate lost objects in the same manner as a diving rod. This tree was believed to have so many magical powers, the Celts used them in ritual fires as one of the nine sacred woods. They were also used in pagan rituals where the goddesses Medbe and Dagda were called to promote visions and longevity spells.
Bows made from yew were historically the weapon of choice for war in Europe until the advent of firearms. The oldest, man-made tool is a spear made of yew dating back 50,000 years in England. Spears, bows, bowls, and other home and farm implements were found in archaeological dig in Switzerland dating back 10,000 years. Yew forests were common in France and Germany until great wars were fought, thinning the forests for wood for create bows, spears and poison darts. The tree dates back to prehistoric periods, making it possibly the oldest known tree.