Stop 7. YEW
The Common Yew is native to Britain and found across the Northern hemisphere.
When the last Ice Age receded between 10,000 – 8,000 years ago, they re-colonised
the British Isles, moving north from southern Europe. They are primitive conifers
with separate male and female trees. The leaves are dark green, about 2cms long.
Although they can live a long time, the actual age of individual trees is often difficult
to assess, because many older trees are hollow and it is therefore impossible to
count the rings in the trunk. The oldest yew in Britain is said to be the Fortingall Yew
in Perthshire, which is thought to be well over 2000 years old. Yew forests were once
widespread in Britain and Western Europe, but many were cut down to make bows
for hunting and warfare. Yew wood is both very strong and flexible. Some of the
finest longbows up to 6ft long were made from a single piece of yew.
“The very beadsmen learn to bend their bows
“Against thy majesty; boys, with women’s voices,
Strive to speak big and clap their female joints
In stiff unwieldy arms against thy crown:
The very beadsmen learn to bend their bows
Of double-fatal yew against thy state;”
Shakespeare Richard II Act III Sc 2
Except for the bright red arils, the fleshy seed covering which looks like a small fruit,
every part of the Yew is poisonous and eating the leaves, bark or seeds can lead to
severe poisoning. The positive side to this is that toxins found in the leaves are being
used in the treatment of ovarian and breast cancer.
Mythology and Folklore of the Yew
Yews were sacred to many ancient religions being associated with eternal life, death
and rebirth. They are extremely long-lived but also have the ability to regenerate. If
a branch touches the ground, roots are formed and a new plant is created.
Stop 7. YEW