Photo and article by Donna Iverson
As winter approaches, red berries on evergreens catch one’s eye ....especially on yew bushes. However the berries, as enticing as they appear, are highly toxic and it is one of the reasons the yew could be thought of as the perfect Halloween tree.
In true Halloween style, the yew has been associated with magic, longevity and the underworld. The leaves, branches and berries are all highly toxic and have earned it the name of Tree of Death. In ancient times, branches were brought to gravesites of newly departed to guide their way to the next world.
Yew is one of the oldest of trees, if not the oldest tree on the planet dating back nearly 10,000 years. Yew is also considered a sacred tree often planted in churchyards, graveyards and pagan tree groves. You can still find yew trees in churchyards and old cemeteries, right here in Western Michigan.
Today, the yew is valued as a landscape plant and by cabinet makers for its wood. As a landscape plant, yew makes a great hedge that can be box shaped and needs little other attention. Four to six feet tall, yew grows horizontally by the same amount.
There are both native and European varieties. The English yew is taxus baccata; the American yew is taxus canadensis. The native yew grows in northern Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and north of the border in Canada.
The wood of the yew is prized for use in cabinet making, lutes, and the creation of longbows. In the Paleolithic and Bronze ages, longbows were made primarily of yew, from a single piece of wood. The oldest longbow ever found was discovered in the Alps and dates back to circa 2600 BC. Made completely of yew, it was the bow used by Henry VIII, for both warfare and hunting. Today a yew longbow could cost you well over $1000.
Ironically, even though yew is highly toxic, the bark and needles were used by ancient shamans for healing. The theory was that if what didn’t kill you, could heal you. Over the years, yew compounds have been used in the treatment of diphtheria, tapeworms, swollen tonsils (tonsillitis), seizures (epilepsy), muscle and joint pain (rheumatism), urinary tract conditions, liver conditions and even cancer. Still, a major warning ..do not try this at home.
As recent as 2014, the yew was celebrated at the Poblet Monastery in Spain at the International Yew Conference. Participants gathered with the purpose of protecting the yew, as like many trees, it’s survival is threatened.
Local nurseries carry yew bushes for purchase although finding the native yew species may require an online search.