Top 10 Facts: Yew

Historic significance. One of the oldest wooden artefacts ever discovered by modern humans was made from Yew – a spearhead found in Essex dated at approximately 450,000 years of age. This particular spearhead was unearthed in 1911 at Clacton-on-sea and represents not only the oldest wooden find from the UK but one of the most significant worldwide.

Warfare. Yew wood is extremely hard-wearing and , as a result, was used frequently during the Middle Ages to make the renowned English Longbow – a weapon that helped the English win many historic battles. Particularly those during the Hundred-Year War. The traditional construction of a longbow consists of drying the yew wood for 1 to 2 years, then slowly working the wood into shape, with the entire process taking up to four years. The demand for yew wood in England was, at one point, so great that it depleted stocks across a huge area of the UK, resulting in the subsequent importation of Yew from the continent.

Toxicity. All parts of the Yew, with the exception of its bright red fruit, are known to be toxic, and over the centuries, there have been numerous fatalities as a result of Yew poisoning. Among these, the 2014 incident involving the unfortunate death of Ben Hines. Yew was also used by the Celtic Chieftain Catuvolcus (53 BCE) as a means of suicide so to avoid becoming a roman slave. In a similar way, the historian Orosius notes that when the Astures were besieged at Mons Medullius, they preferred to die by their own swords or by the yew poison rather than surrender. By all accounts, a death by yew poisoning is a rather grizzly one.

Cancer treatment. Despite its toxic reputation,  a chemical found in yew – taxol – has been found to have anti-cancer effects. These chemicals have since been synthesised and are now being used in the treatment of breast, ovarian and lung cancers.

Ties with Christianity. The Druids regarded yew as sacred and planted it close to their temples. As early Christians often built their churches on these consecrated sites, the association of yew trees with churchyards was perpetuated, suggesting that the renowned ties between the yew and Christian holy places is, in fact, a myth. With trees simply being left to their own devices and seldom disturbed due to the human significance of said sites. It is also suggested that early Christian’s continued the tradition of planting yews on holy land so to placate those whose religion had been replaced by Christianity.

A long history of death. The yew has been viewed as symbolic of death, sorrow and sadness since Egyptian times. They used its foliage as a symbol of mourning and, as such, the myths surrounding the tree were passed into both Greek and Roman cultures. With the Romans using the wood of the yew to fuel funeral pyres. It is thought that much of the funereal significance of the Yew in Britain came from the influence of the Romans, as well as the aforementioned pagans.

Key to Immortality. Yews can live for upwards of 3000 years. This is due to a number of ingenious techniques that the tree uses to ensure its longevity. Among these, the new shoots put out at the base of the trunk which form buttresses, of sorts, stabilising the main trunk and protecting it from harm. When the main trunk of the yew eventually dies, these shoots may rise to form a new tree. Yew’s are also frequently found to possess internal roots, put down by branches into the decaying heart of the tree; thus allowing for the formation of new trees even when the main body of the original yew has perished. Additionally, when yew branches reach the ground they can become embedded, taking root and leading to the growth of a separate tree connected underground to the old one. Some of the world’s oldest yews have survived in this way – continuing as fragmented trees, even when the original plant has died.

Yew berries spotted on a walk near Bedlington
Yew berries spotted on a walk near Bedlington

Fungi. Only one fungus is regularly found on the yew, the yellow polyporus sulphureus, otherwise known by its common name of Chicken of the Woods.

Cultivars. Yew is a popular choice with horticulturists due to its landscaping and ornamental value and well over 200 cultivars have been named. The most popular of these being the Irish yew (T. baccata ‘Fastigiata‘), a cultivar of the European yew selected from two trees found growing in Ireland. There are also several forms with yellow leaves, collectively known as golden yews. In some locations, e.g. when hemmed in by buildings or other trees, an Irish yew can reach 20 feet in height without exceeding 2 feet in diameter at its thickest point, although with age many Irish yews assume a fat cigar shape rather than being truly columnar. (source)

Record-breaker. The Fortingall Yew, found in the churchyard of the village of Fortingall in Perthshire, Scotland, is thought to be one of, if not the oldest tree in Britain – estimated at between 2000 and 3000 years of age. The tree once held the record for the largest girth of any British tree (16 meters) but has since succumbed to natural decay, splitting into several separate stems via the methods mentioned previously. As a bonus fact, it is also suggested that Pontius Pilate was born in its shade and played there as a child.


  1. stephanie Sorrell says:

    I do enjoy your writings. The yew reminds me of the time when I lived in Bosham and Chichester about 15 years ago. A place where I l;oved to frequent was KIngley Vale, an ancient grove of yew trees and this was here, for the first time, I observed the branches of the stitching their way into the ground, rooting, then emerging with new growth and demonstrating the wonderful way in which nature’s evolutionary pattern is cyclical rather than llinear….

    1. James Common says:

      Thanks for your comment Stephanie, and for the compliment! 🙂

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