Species: Yew (Taxus baccata)

Family: Yews (TAXACEAE)

Category: Non-Flowering Plants

Location: NW

A. Non-Flowering Plants

More extensive information on non-flowering plants can be found in a separate blog post.

B. Yews (TAXACEAE)

The yew family is a small evergreen coniferous family of about 30 species worldwide, with spirally arranged leaves. Yew trees are either male or female. The male cones shed pollen in early Spring, and the female 'cones' are reduced to single seeds covered by a fleshy protective berry called an aril.

Conifers (which includes yews) are classed as non-flowering plants because seeds are borne externally on the upper surface of the scales of female cones.

C. Yew (Taxus baccata)

This long-lived tree has short, flat needles. The red berry-like fruits are the only non-poisonous part of the tree, and are eaten by birds and small mammals. Yew is too poisonous to be used medicinally, but Taxol, a chemical found in yew, is being investigated as an anti-cancer drug. Yew wood was irreplaceable for the manufacture of longbows; the word yewman originally meant an archer (yeoman). The largest yew wood in Europe is north of Chichester, at Kingley Vale near Lavant, and the oldest yew in England is thought to be the one in the churchyard at Coldwaltham, West Sussex. For a softwood the yew is unusually slow growing. The wooden nails used by the Vikings to secure the timber in their clinker-built longships were of yew, as were barrel hoops. The bows of the backs and arms of Windsor chairs are still made from this wood.

Yews may have been planted in churchyards, especially at entrances, to keep cattle out, because all parts of a yew are poisonous, and grass does not grow under its dense canopy. Another putative explanation for the presence of yew trees in churchyards relates to archery. For a period after 1252, by law, men had to practise their longbow skills (using bows made from the strong but flexible wood provided by yews). If they helped to maintain a churchyard, in return they were often entitled to take wood from any yews planted there, without needing to buy the wood themselves. In some quarters, this view has been discounted. Bowstaves needed to be made from the trunk of a yew tree, not its branches. Records also show that yew bowstaves were imported from Europe, sometimes in considerable quantity.

The esteemed writer and broadcaster Richard Mabey discusses some of these theories in an episode of Mabey in the Wild on Yew, Sycamore and Ash on BBC Radio 4. He also explains how the extraordinary age of many Yew trees suggests that many may not have been planted in churchyards but that, instead, many churches may have been built near existing yews. Thus, they are not so much trees that mark mortality but rather immortality, and it is this that more fully explains the long relationship between yew trees and churchyards and cemeteries.

One of the yews in the cemetery (in the east-central section) was planted to mark the millennium. The other (against the south wall) has an unknown history, but is certain to be the oldest living thing there, pre-dating the creation of the cemetery. Its girth was measured in March 2020 as being 3.43 metres, which suggests its age might be in excess of 200 years.

Images

Yew

Yew was planted in churchyards, especially at entrances, to keep cattle out, because grass does not grow under its dense canopy, and grazing cattle will therefore turn away when they reach a bare area.

Yew

Yes is a long-lived tree that has short, flat needles for leaves.

Yew

The red berry-like fruits of the Yew are the only non-poisonous part of the tree, and are eaten by birds and small mammals.