At first glance, the yew may look just like any other tree from its trunk, boughs and branches. Dark green, needle-lined leaves give the conifer its color. But this evergreen has long carried a handful of deep, symbolic meanings – and it has more than one story to tell you.
It isn’t a coincidence that many yew trees have been rooted in churchyards. Some have stood longer than the buildings themselves, showing that spiritual people built their places of worship around them. And yet, the symbolism surrounding the evergreen is stronger than that alone.
The fact that the yew has such a lengthy history highlights the longevity of these durable trees. Some still-living yews have been on Earth for many hundreds of years, which has given people plenty of time to observe the unique evergreen’s ability to grow and survive. Such resilience has only enhanced the tree’s symbolic status in the eyes of those who believe in its power.
In order to be deemed an ancient yew, a tree must stand for at least 900 years. That fact alone indicates that the yew can live for an extraordinarily long period of time. For example, some of the trees still living and growing in the U.K. took root before the 10th century.
Much of the difficulty of age-dating a yew comes down to the way they grow. A typical tree has rings in its trunks or boughs that indicate its age. But yew branches tend to hollow out as they get older, which means that we are unable to count the rings. In addition, even the oldest yew will show fresh growth, and that also makes it tough to date the trees.
So, experts have no way of confirming the true age of some of the world’s oldest trees. For instance, they agree that an ancient yew in Defynnog, Wales, is more than 1,000 years old. But some estimates put it at 1,500 years of age, while others believe that this particular yew has stood for more than five millennia.
According to The Guardian’s Patrick Barkham, “Some dismiss 5,000-year-old trees as ‘romantic,’ although most accept the verdict of international dendrologists who have dated certain British yews at 2,000 years old.” Either way, many consider a yew tree – located in Fortingall, Scotland – to be the oldest organism alive on our planet.
Compared to other evergreens, the yew is considered a mid-sized tree, at most. They usually grow to anywhere from 33 to 66 feet in height, although yews can occasionally reach nearly 100 feet into the air. While that’s certainly quite a height, the loftiest tree of all, the California redwood, towers at more than 300 feet.
Nevertheless, the yew has its stunning longevity, and with that comes some surprising survival methods that few other trees possess. For instance, as a yew grows, the trunk might split under the pressure of its branches and boughs. Such a crack would make other trees susceptible to rot, but the long-living evergreen continues to grow.
And yew trees carry on sprouting new foliage, right into their ancient years. Shoots grow from low on the evergreens’ trunks – or even from bits of wood that look lifeless. Green thumbs can uproot some of these shoots and use them to propagate new yew trees.
To pinpoint a yew, young or old, you can look for the characteristics that all of the evergreens share. For starters, the trees have bark that’s flaky and scale-like. From the trunk spread branches that sport the yew’s leaves. The shape of these resemble needles, and they sprout from both sides of the tree’s twigs.
Most trees similar to the yew disperse their seeds by dropping cones. However, you won’t find any of those dangling from this particular evergreen – it spreads its seeds through arils. They look very similar to berries and have a single seed inside.
The aril is significant for several reasons. Not only does it protect a yew seed, but it also stands as the only part of the tree that isn’t poisonous. The rest of the evergreen, even right down to the seeds contained within the aril, is toxic if ingested.
That’s because the yew contains substances known as taxine alkaloids, which the intestine rapidly processes. So someone – or something – who’s consumed these chemicals can suffer serious breathing difficulties or even heart failure. As a result, animals fatally poison themselves by eating parts of the yew inadvertently.
The yew is capable of poisoning humans as well, although they tend to survive with the proper treatment. In fact, taxine alkaloids can make their way into the human body through skin absorption, too. So, those who come into contact with any part of a yew ought to do so cautiously – and, better yet, with a pair of gloves.
Interestingly, the same taxine alkaloids that can poison a person have been utilized as cancer medications, too. Specifically, a chemotherapy drug called paclitaxel is derived from European yew leaf extract. The same compound can be found in the Pacific yew, which can be found all along the West Coast of the U.S., although the European version grows more readily.
The yew is also harvested for its wood, which can be processed in ways comparable to pine. It’s durable and strong, yet very springy. As such, it has long been chosen for items that need a bit of bounce and a lot of sturdiness. For instance, it’s often been used to make bows.
Of course, working with yew wood requires precautions, including protective clothing. Even the sawdust can cause poisoning, in fact. Nonetheless, woodworkers have successfully crafted with the material for a very long time. Indeed, a yew spearhead unearthed in the south of U.K. is thought to date back 400,000, which means it’s among the most ancient wooden items ever discovered.
Partly because of their woodworking potential, yew trees started popping up in churchyards across Ireland in the U.K. People then used its branches as a resource for weapon-building. However, the trees served more than one purpose in populating churchyards. Many people considered them to have a symbolic purpose, too.
The yew tree has given rise to several symbolic interpretations, especially in a religious context. For one thing, civilizations as ancient as the trees themselves noted that the yew always had new growth, in spite of its age. As such, yew expert Janis Fry explained to The Guardian, “It’s the tree of life, death and resurrection and it’s known as the tree of life in all cultures across the Northern Hemisphere.”
In addition, people knew that yew leaves and branches contained toxic components. As a result, the evergreens have represented death as much as they have done life. Indeed, Shakespeare included the tree as part of a poison brewed in Macbeth. The great playwright described the concoction as containing “slips of yew, silvered in the moon’s eclipse.”
And many hundreds of years before Shakespeare’s lifetime, the druids – who were priests in ancient Britain – looked at the yew and saw something sacred. This was especially true when it came to themes of resurrection and mortality. The druids consequently made the evergreens a major feature in their burial sites, as they thought the tree’s roots would safeguard the dead.
Moreover, even as Christianity became the dominant religion in the U.K., people still looked at the yew as a symbolic tree. For example, yew saplings became a part of funeral ceremonies. Churchgoers also received a yew branch on Easter Sunday, a holiday that marks the resurrection of Christ.
These rituals explain why yews grow today in 500 or more English churchyards. Some of the trees have stood for longer than the religious buildings at their sides, in fact, further cementing the importance of the trees to the churches themselves. Indeed, the yew may have served a practical purpose, too – at least, in the minds of those planting them.
As Richard Mabey wrote in The Daily Telegraph in 2015, a centuries-old yew in his local churchyard had been planted purposefully. “Our teachers told us that the mount on which it was planted might have held the corpses of the town’s plague victims,” he recalled. His instructors failed to provide an explanation for this, but others have provided a surprising reason.
At the time of the plague, many people seemed to believe that the yew had the ability to both safeguard the dead and cleanse their bodies. “If the Yew be set in a place subject to poisonous vapours, the very branches will draw and imbibe them,” claimed a botanist named Robert Turner during the 1660s.
In addition, the yew’s position in churchyards may have been a purely practical decision in some instances. According to the U.K.’s Woodland Trust, the clergy may have wanted the tree’s poisonous sprouts on their lands so commoners would stop grazing their cattle on them.
The trees’ powerful poisons certainly taught cattle grazers a lesson. As such, during the 1800s the yew was being seen as a totem of mortality more than anything else. Having any part of the tree in your home was viewed by some as an indication that someone who lived there would die in the near future.
In other areas of the U.K., however, people welcomed yew into their homes as part of their Christmas ornaments. Such disparities show how the yew has been interpreted in a myriad of ways around the world, by turns as a symbol of misfortune, life, death and resurrection.
For instance, Spaniards often dangled pieces of yew on their balconies as a way of warding off lightning strikes. In the Asturias region, specifically, people carried sprigs of yew to burial grounds to mark the graves of the recently deceased. They hoped the branches would help the dead to navigate their way through the afterlife.
Strangely enough, people in some areas of Scotland once believed that clasping a piece of yew with their left palms could give them a unique gift. The bough would apparently render them silent to one person in the room, while the rest of the people present could hear everything they said.
A yew branch was perceived to ward off bad luck in smaller ways, as well. At Easter, for instance, some people brought branches into their kitchens and dangled them overhead as they cooked. They thought that the yew could ward off the potential of making a mess of baking a batch of bread.
Indeed, the yew could symbolize good fortune just as much as it represented the darker moments in life. Having a yew grow near a house served as a shield of protection around the property. But if someone chose to chop one down, it would bring bad luck to the bearer of the axe.
On that note, there’s much debate about ancient yews and whether or not the British government should protect them from an untimely chop. In 2019 environmentalist Rob McBride traveled across the U.K. to chronicle the country’s many ancient trees. And he couldn’t believe that there were no laws in place to stop someone from cutting down a thousand-year-old yew.
“If I take a chisel to the church at Uppington, it would be a criminal offence,” he told The Guardian. “So how can people just cut bits off ancient yews?” However, many of the trees grow in churchyards managed by the Church of England, whose leadership doesn’t want any added safeguards for the yews on its lands.
The Church of England has claimed that its church managers already have a long list of responsibilities, so it doesn’t want to add yew preservation to the list. In addition, the Church contends that it’s had the trees in its courtyards for centuries and many ancient ones still stand, which means that its existing care system is sufficient.
Nevertheless, Fry believed that pushing for national protections could give yews an all-new symbolic meaning. Namely, the country could unite behind their special trees as it split from the European Union. She said, “The UK could make something of that – we are independent and we’ve got the largest collection of ancient yews on Earth.”
The founder of the Lawyers for Nature group, Paul Powlesland, agreed, adding that yew protections could be a cause to bring together politicians of all parties. He said that safeguarding such ancient foliage “crosses political divides – it can unite environmental lefties and political conservatives. It speaks to who we are as a country.”
“What is this land? What does it mean to be British? It’s a chance for politicians to make themselves part of history,” Powlesland concluded. “These yews have existed for thousands of years. Hopefully, if we protect them they will still exist when this entire civilization is consigned to the history books. That’s a magical thing.”
That magic is what’s made the yew a sacred, somber, uplifting and enduring symbol over the ages. From what appears to be dead wood sprout fresh roots and seedlings. Its trunk splits, but the tree continues to grow upward and outward. And now, when you happen upon one, you know just how special the sight before you is.