Yew Trees: What Should You Know?

Yew trees are a softwood tree native to Europe and one of the oldest native genera of trees in Europe. Given that animals and humans alike depend on foliage for sustenance, you must stay away from the Yew. Almost all the “edible” portions of the Yew are poisonous to animals and humans. Someone can feel negative effects from skin contact or inhalation. Overall, it is a slow growing tree that is medium-sized.

The Yew produces berries containing a single seed. Although the seed inside is poisonous, the berry encompassing it is not. The Yew is difficult to age and therefore makes the average life expectancy hard to calculate. However, scientists estimate that a Yew lives to be 500 years old. Additionally, we often associate the Yew with death and so it was planted in churchyards. Historically, yew wood was used to construct musical instruments, weapons, and furniture. The Yew was high threatened because of logging. Equally important, many cut trees down to protect livestock from poisoning and to construct longbows.

So How Many Kinds of Yew Trees are There?

The name “Yew” covers many trees that do not truly fall into the Taxus genus. However, the Taxus genus contains approximately seventeen trees. The Taxus genus is part of the Taxaceae family with other yew genera including Amentotacus, Austrotaxus, Cephalotaxus, Psudotaxus, and Torreya. Below is a list of the seventeen species of the Taxus genus.

  • Common yew or European yew or English yew (Taxus baccata)
  • Western yew or Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia)
  • Canadian yew (Taxus canadensis)
  • Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata)
  • Chinese yew (Taxus chinensis)
  • Mexican yew (Taxus globosa)
  • Florida yew (Taxus floridana)
  • West Himalayan yew (Taxus contorta)
  • East Himalayan yew (Taxus wallichiana)
  • Kingston yew (Taxus kingstonii)
  • Taiwan yew (Taxus sumatrana)
  •  Celebes yew (Taxus celebica)
  • Maire’s yew (Taxus mairei)
  • Irish yew (Taxus fastigiata)
  •  Scaly yew (Taxus ocreata)
  • Scutaceous yew (Taxus scutata)
  • Phyton yew (Taxus phytonii)

How Large Do Yew Trees Grow?

The Yew grows slowly and reaches marginal heights. All things considered, the Yew reaches a height of 50 feet on average and some top off at 65 feet. That is a relatively short tree compared to many other species. Also, the Yew spreads quite wide. Often, they reach 20 feet in width, but if they survive the split, they can spread even further. Many of the ancient yews are close to 50 or 60 feet in width.

What Does a Yew Tree Look Like?

A Yew tree is a short, bushy tree. Many use it for ornamental decoration in gardens and yards. The bark is brown and flaky. Furthermore, the leaves are dark green and flat. We consider the Yew to be an evergreen and it keeps its needles year-round. The Yew produces a flower in the spring that is off white.

Yew Tree Berries

Additionally, the yew produces a red berry called the aril from the female flowers. From the male flowers, a wood-like cone is formed.

Where Can I Find a Yew Tree?

Yews grow throughout Europe. We also find them in Morocco and Algeria. By and large, the Yew does not sustain the cold weather well. This forces the yew population to the southern parts of Europe. However, the Yew thrives in more mountainous areas. You will usually find a Yew growing on a steep and rocky slope. If you are looking for Yews planted by humans, they are planted most commonly in churchyards and cemeteries. They not only represent death but also protect the buildings they grow beside. 

How Long Can a Yew Tree Live?

The Yew is difficult to age. However, scientists estimate that the average Yew can live between 400 and 600 years. Unlike many other tree species, it is impossible to count rings on a Yew. According to NPR, scientists discovered the oldest yew tree in Wales. Moreover, it split at some point in the past to create a short, but 60 feet wide tree. Unique to the Yew, they can survive a split or fracture. This results in a tree with a much longer life span.

Can I Grow a Yew Tree?

Yew are easy to grow. Many plant them to use as hedges. However, because of their slow- growth, we do not desire them for logging or farming purposes. During the first year, you will need to water your yew sapling to ensure proper soil moisture. Young Yew are prone to fungal infections and so they need well-drained soil. They are not picky about the amount of sun they receive. The Yew can thrive in full sun or full shade. Albeit a Yew grown in full shade will be weaker and thinner. The Yew does best in mild climates, where it is not subjected to either hot or cold for long periods of time. Finally, if you are planting your Yew for ornamental purposes, it will eventually need to be pruned into the hedge shape you desire.

It is Time to BRANCH out into some fun tree facts!

  • The oldest Yew lives in Wales and is estimated to be 5000 years old.
  • Yew can survive fracture.
  • The Yew is the symbol for death and doom.

What Are Some Uses for Yew Trees?

Natural Uses

We do not use Yew or any of the components for sustenance. Consuming yew needles or seeds actually changes how the heart cells work and causes it to beat at an irregular rate. There are some animals, like the rabbit and deer, who do not seem to react to the poisonous levels of the seeds and needles. Also, birds consume the seeds and distribute them to further the Yew population. While we cannot consume the Yew, there are some uses for the various parts of the Yew. Initially, the bark and needles were ingredients in a cancer drug. The ingredients are now developed synthetically in a lab. Though highly ill-advised, sometimes yew was used to cause an abortion. Throughout history, ancient people use the yew to treat tapeworms, urinary tract issues, and seizures.

Artistic Uses

The Yew holds significant symbolism in both religion and art. By all means, the Yew stands for death and doom. The people of England have long planted Yews in churchyards and cemeteries to symbolize death and protect the buildings and structures. Artists use the Yew in art to represent death. Many authors use the Yew, just like in history, as a method of suicide. Finally, a famous Yew is featured in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Before traveling to the Quidditch World Cup, the families meet under a tree in Frithsden Beeches. This tree is an ancient Yew estimated to be 3600 years old.

Residential/Commercial Uses

The most popular use for yew wood throughout history is to craft long bows. For centuries, the longbow was the deadliest weapon. The heartwood of the Yew claims incredibly strong compressive strength. The sapwood adds elasticity to the longbow. We do not use yew in many residential applications. It is the hardest of the softwoods, but still not desired for house building. Also, as a yew ages, its trunk becomes hollow. Primarily smaller items are made from yew wood. We can construct furniture, instruments, and weapons from the wood. However, the Yew in Europe farmers heavily cut down to protect herds from poisoning. All things considered, the Yew is difficult to come by and is not used for many things.

Wrap Up

We use the Yew in many ways, primarily as a hedge or as a beautiful addition to a yard or garden. We must give caution, since many portions of the Yew are poisonous. Moreover, even inhalation near the Yew can cause significant respiratory issues for those prone to allergies. While humans cannot consume portions of the Yew, rabbits, deer, and birds can and depend on the Yew. The Yew is threatened, and its slow growth does not help the rebuilding of the population. Europe and especially England historically used the Yew to create longbows, the weapon of choice for centuries.

Overall, it is a slow growing tree that only reaches 50 feet. Uniquely, the Yew can survive a split or fracture. When it splits, scientists still consider it one tree with one main root system. Pharmacists originally used the Yew to create a cancer fighting drug to combat ovarian and breast cancer. Now, they develop it synthetically. While the Yew is pretty flexible, it cannot sustain extreme cold or heat. However, it can survive and actually thrive on rocky slopes. You can plant a Yew in your backyard with ease. A sapling will need extra care and you will need to ensure ample drainage, but still receive ample water. Finally, the Yew can be shaped into a lovely hedge to add to any garden.

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