Friday, 13 March 2009

The magical yew

Taxus baccata Linnaeus - the yew. Yesterday I was in the churchyard of Avebury's St James's church when one of my companion's pointed out this pollen laden male yew. I don't think I have ever seen this phenomena before, or at least have never noticed. Male yew trees flower later winter/early spring producing small catkins with abundant pollen which is borne on the wind. The friend who pointed out the tree yesterday shook one of the branches and a cloud of pollen drifted into the air. On the other side of the path the female tree stood awaiting pollination to produce crimson berries in late summer. Another friend tells me that on a hay-fever calendar of when pollens are released from spring onwards, the yew is shown as the first.

Although the leaves, bark and seeds of the yew are poisonous, the leaves are now used to produce the drug Taxol which inhibits cancer cell growth permanently. The berries, however, are edible - just don't swallow the seeds. So, although toxic if ingested, with the right knowledge the yew's chemistry can be turned into a healing drug for cancer - that's more than a bit magic.

Almost all churchyards have a yew growing in them - the yew is considered one of the sacred trees of the British Isles and has associations with the ancient druids. The yew was planted outside farms and homesteads to act as guardian spirits and they also perform this role in churchyards symbolically watching over souls passing to the Otherworld and protecting from evil. Yews are extremely long lived and there are examples of yews that have survived 2000 years.

Yew wood is strong and elastic and was once used to make long bows and is still much sought after today for wood carving. In the ancient tree alphabet of Ogham it represents the letter I (Idho) and is associated with the eve of Winter Solstice.

I found website about ancient yews - where two poems about yews can be found: