The yew tree is also connected to Samhain, a sacred tree to the druids who saw it as a representation of the eternal cycle of life and death.
Taxus becate , common name: Yew
Yew trees are were used as symbols of immortality, For many centuries it was the custom for yew branches to be carried on Palm Sunday and at funerals. In Ireland it was said that the yew was ‘the coffin of the vine’, as wine barrels were made of yew staves.
Because Yews are able to root their branches, they are virtually deathless, and one Scottish yew tree, the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, is reputed to be 9,000 years old. Yews are connected with death, rebirth, and initiation mysteries.
Traditional use, magical and medicine properties
Yew timber is rich orange-brown in colour, closely grained and incredibly strong and durable (hence why old trees can remain standing with hollow trunks). Traditionally the wood was used in turnery and to make long bows and tool handles. One of the world’s oldest surviving wooden artefacts is a yew spear head, found in 1911 at Clacton-on-Sea, in Essex. It is estimated to be about 450,000 years old. It was also used to make wands, touch wood, and staffs.
The bark, folige and seeds within the berries are poisonous, however medical science have discovered anti-cancer compounds which they harvested from the foliage of Taxus baccata and used in modern medicine.
Yew trees have long been associated with churchyards and there are at least 500 churchyards in England which contain yew trees older than the building itself. It is not clear why, but it has been suggested that yew trees were planted on the graves of plague victims to protect and purify the dead, but also that graveyards were inaccessible to cows, which would die if they ate the leaves.
The Yew is an evergreen conifer native to the UK, Europe and North Africa. It can reach 400 to 600 years of age. There are ten yew trees in Britain believed to predate the 10th century. Mature trees can grow to 20m. The bark is reddish-brown with purple tones, and peeling. The leaves are straight, small needles with a pointed tip, and coloured dark green above and green-grey below. They grow in two rows on either side of each twig.
Flowers: Yew is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers grow on separate trees. These are visible in March and April. Male flowers are insignificant white-yellow globe-like structures. Female flowers are bud-like and scaly, and green when young but becoming brown and acorn-like with age.
Fruits: Unlike many other conifers, the common yew does not actually bear its seeds in a cone. Instead, each seed is enclosed in a red, fleshy, berry-like structure known as an aril which is open at the tip.