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European Yew

(Taxus baccata) a sacred tree

Native to western, central, and southern Europe, northwest Africa, northern Iran, and southwest Asia, this was the first species of yew ever described and named.

The European yew is a small- to medium-sized evergreen tree, growing 33–66 feet (exceptionally up to 92 feet) tall, with a trunk up to 6 feet 7 inches (exceptionally 13 feet) in diameter. The bark is reddish-brown and scaly. The long, narrow leaves are flat, dark green on top, pale green beneath, arranged spirally on the stem, but with the leaf bases twisted to align the leaves in two flat rows either side of the stem, and highly poisonous. Males flower in late winter or early spring and produce very small catkins with abundant pollen, which is spread by wind. Seed cones grow on female trees through the summer, with each producing a single seed partly embedded in a pulpy, conspicuous bright red berry, which appears beginning in early September. The seeds are extremely poisonous and bitter, but are opened and eaten by some bird species. The "berries" are also poisonous, but not nearly to the degree that the leaves and seeds are. The poison found in the leaves and berries is an alkaloid capable of stopping the heart of an animal so suddenly that there's no time for symptoms to appear. Maturation of the "berries" is spread over two to three months, increasing the chances of successful seed dispersal.

yew 'berry'

The wood of the European yew has been used to make longbows for at least 10,000 years, and, more recently, in cabinetmaking, as veneer for furniture, and to make a variety of artistic and useful objects.

Slow-growing and long-lived, many European yews are believed to be well over a thousand years old. This incredible lifespan is why the yew tree has traditionally been associated with both immortality and death, since humans can only become immortal after they "die," and this association led to the European yew being revered by ancient Druids. Yew branches were said to provide protection against evil spirits, and harming a yew tree was said to bring bad luck. As Christianity spread across Europe many churches were built near European yews because those sites already had spiritual significance, which is why many old European churchyards sport at least one yew tree. Yew branches are still a traditional funeral "decoration" in parts of Europe, and yew trees are often planted in new churchyards.

a yew tree growing in a church graveyard

Scientific Classification

Division Pinophyta
Class Pinopsida
Order Pinales
Family Taxaceae
Genus and Species Taxus baccata

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The Robinson Library >> Conifers

This page was last updated on 09/17/2018.