|Taxus baccata (European yew) shoot with mature and immature cones|
Taxus baccata is a conifer native to western, central and southern Europe, northwest Africa, northern Iran and southwest Asia. It is the tree originally known as yew, though with other related trees becoming known, it may now be known as English yew, or European yew.
Taxonomy and naming 
The word yew is from Proto-Germanic *īwa-, possibly originally a loanword from Gaulish *ivos, compare Irish ēo, Welsh ywen, French if (see Eihwaz for a discussion). Baccata is Latin for bearing red berries. The word yew as it was originally used seems to refer to the color brown. The yew (μίλος) was known to Theophrastus, who noted its preference for mountain coolness and shade, its evergreen character and its slow growth.
Most romance languages kept a version of the Latin word taxus (Italian tasso, Corsican tassu, Occitan teis, Catalan teix, Gasconic tech, Spanish tejo, Portuguese teixo, Galician teixu and Romanian tisă) from the same root as toxic. In Slavic languages, the same root (presumably borrowed from Romanian) is preserved: Russian tiss (тис), Slovenian tisa, Serbian tisa (тиса).
The common yew was one of the many species first described by Linnaeus. Along with around 30 other species, it is classified in the family Taxaceae, which is now firmly classified as a conifer in the order Pinales.
It is a small- to medium-sized evergreen tree, growing 10–20 metres (33–66 ft) (exceptionally up to 28 metres (92 ft) ) tall, with a trunk up to 2 metres (6 ft 7 in) (exceptionally 4 metres (13 ft)) diameter. The bark is thin, scaly brown, coming off in small flakes aligned with the stem. The leaves are lanceolate, flat, dark green, 1–4 centimetres (0.39–1.6 in) long and 2–3 millimetres (0.079–0.12 in) broad, arranged spirally on the stem, but with the leaf bases twisted to align the leaves in two flat rows either side of the stem, except on erect leading shoots where the spiral arrangement is more obvious. The leaves are highly poisonous.
The seed cones are highly modified, each cone containing a single seed 4–7 millimetres (0.16–0.28 in) long partly surrounded by a modified scale which develops into a soft, bright red berry-like structure called an aril, 8–15 millimetres (0.31–0.59 in) long and wide and open at the end. The arils are mature 6 to 9 months after pollination, and with the seed contained are eaten by thrushes, waxwings and other birds, which disperse the hard seeds undamaged in their droppings; maturation of the arils is spread over 2 to 3 months, increasing the chances of successful seed dispersal. The seeds themselves are extremely poisonous and bitter, but are opened and eaten by some bird species including Hawfinches Greenfinches and Great Tits. The aril is not poisonous, and is gelatinous and very sweet tasting. The male cones are globose, 3–6 millimetres (0.12–0.24 in) diameter, and shed their pollen in early spring. It is mostly dioecious, but occasional individuals can be variably monoecious, or change sex with time.
It is relatively slow growing, and can be very long-lived, with the maximum recorded trunk diameter of 4 metres probably only being reached in about 2,000 years. The potential age of yews is impossible to determine accurately and is subject to much dispute. There is rarely any wood as old as the entire tree, while the boughs themselves often hollow with age, making ring counts impossible. There are claims as high as 5,000–9,500 years, but other evidence based on growth rates and archaeological work of surrounding structures suggests the oldest trees (such as the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, Scotland) are more likely to be in the range of 2,000 years. Even with this lower estimate, Taxus baccata is the longest-living plant in Europe. One characteristic contributing to its longevity is that it is able to split under the weight of advanced growth without succumbing to disease in the fracture, as do most other trees.
Significant trees 
In Great Britain and in Normandy, there are many yews dating back around the year 1000 and some of them around 500. The Fortingall Yew is commonly believed to be the oldest one, with an estimated age between 2,000 and 4,000 years old, growing in a Scottish church yard. Other well-known yews include the Llangernyw Yew, Caesarsboom, and the Florencecourt Yew.
It is considered by several authors that the oldest yew tree in Spain is located in Bermiego, Asturias. It is known as Teixu l'Iglesia in the Asturian language. It is 15 metres tall with a trunk diameter of 6.82 metres and a crown diameter of 15 metres. It was declared a Natural Monument on April 27, 1995 by the Asturian Government and is protected by the Plan of Natural Resources.
Most parts of the tree are toxic, except the bright red aril surrounding the seed. The foliage remains toxic even when wilted, and toxicity increases in potency when dried. Ingestion and subsequent excretion by birds whose beaks and digestive systems do not break down the seed's coating are the primary means of yew dispersal. The major toxin within the yew is the alkaloid taxine. Horses have the lowest tolerance to taxine, with a lethal dose of 200–400 mg/kg body weight, cattle, pigs, and other livestock are only slightly less vulnerable. Symptoms of yew poisoning include an accelerated heart rate, muscle tremors, convulsions, collapse, difficulty breathing, circulation impairment and eventually heart failure. However, there may be no symptoms, and if poisoning remains undetected death may occur within hours. Fatal poisoning in humans is very rare, usually occurring after consuming yew foliage. The leaves are more toxic than the seed.
Uses and traditions 
In the ancient Celtic world, the yew tree (*eburos) had extraordinary importance; a passage by Caesar narrates that Catuvolcus, chief of the Eburones poisoned himself with yew rather than submit to Rome (Gallic Wars 6: 31). Similarly, Florus notes that when the Cantabrians were under siege by the legate Gaius Furnius in 22 BC, most of them took their lives either by the sword or by fire or by a poison extracted ex arboribus taxeis, that is, from the yew tree (2: 33, 50–51). In a similar way, Orosius notes that when the Astures were besieged at Mons Medullius, they preferred to die by their own swords or by the yew tree poison rather than surrender (6, 21, 1).
The yew is often found in churchyards in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France and northern areas of Spain. In France, the oldest yew trees are almost all located in church yards of Normandy and a chapel was very often laid out in the hollow trunk. Some examples can be found in La Haye-de-Routot or La Lande-Patry. It is said that up to 40 people could stand inside one of the La-Haye-de-Routot yew trees and the Le Ménil-Ciboult yew is probably the largest one (13 m diameter). Indeed some of these trees are exceptionally large (over 5 m diameter) and may be over 2,000 years old. Sometimes monks planted yews in the middle of their cloister, as at Muckross Abbey (Ireland) or abbaye de Jumièges (France). Some ancient yew trees are located at St Mary the Virgin Church, Overton-on-Dee in Wales.
In Asturian tradition and culture the yew tree has had a real link with the land, the people, the ancestors and the ancient religion. It was tradition on All Saints Day to bring a branch of a yew tree to the tombs of those who had died recently so they will find the guide in their return to the Land of Shadows.  as a symbol of the transcendence of death, and is usually found in the main squares of the villages where people celebrated the open councils that served as a way of general assembly to rule the village affairs.
It has been suggested that the enormous sacred evergreen at the Temple at Uppsala was an ancient yew tree. The Christian church commonly found it expedient to take over existing pre-Christian sacred sites for churches. It has also been suggested that yews were planted at religious sites as their long life was suggestive of eternity, or because being toxic they were seen as trees of death. Another suggested explanation is that yews were planted to discourage farmers and drovers from letting animals wander on to the burial grounds, the poisonous foliage being the disincentive. A further possible reason is that fronds and branches of yew were often used as a substitute for palms on Palm Sunday.
In 1021, Avicenna introduced the medicinal use of T. baccata for phytotherapy in The Canon of Medicine. He named this herbal drug "Zarnab" and used it as a cardiac remedy. This was the first known use of a calcium channel blocker drug, which were not in wide use in the Western world until the 1960s.
The precursors of chemotherapy drug Paclitaxel can be derived from the leaves of European yew, which is a more renewable source than the bark of the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia). This ended a point of conflict in the early 1990s; many environmentalists, including Al Gore, had opposed the harvesting of yew for paclitaxel cancer treatments. Docetaxel (another taxane) can then be obtained by semi-synthetic conversion from the precursors.
In the Central Himalayas, the plant is used as a treatment for breast and ovarian cancer.
The oldest surviving yew longbow was found at Rotten Bottom in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland. It has been given a calibrated radiocarbon date of 4040 BC to 3640 BC and is on display in The National Museum of Scotland. Yew is also associated with Wales and England because of the longbow, an early weapon of war developed in northern Europe, and as the English longbow the basis for a medieval tactical system. Yew is the wood of choice for longbow making; the bows are constructed so that the heartwood of yew is on the inside of the bow while the sapwood is on the outside. This takes advantage of the natural properties of yew wood since the heartwood resists compression while the sapwood resists stretching. This increased the strength and efficiency of the bow. Much yew is knotty and twisted, and therefore unsuitable for bowmaking; most trunks do not give good staves and even in a good trunk much wood has to be discarded.
The trade of yew wood to England for longbows was so robust that it depleted the stocks of good-quality, mature yew over a vast area. The first documented import of yew bowstaves to England was in 1294. In 1350 there was a serious shortage, and Henry IV of England ordered his royal bowyer to enter private land and cut yew and other woods. In 1470 compulsory archery practice was renewed, and hazel, ash, and laburnum were specifically allowed for practice bows. Supplies still proved insufficient, until by the Statute of Westminster in 1472, every ship coming to an English port had to bring four bowstaves for every tun. Richard III of England increased this to ten for every tun. This stimulated a vast network of extraction and supply, which formed part of royal monopolies in southern Germany and Austria. In 1483, the price of bowstaves rose from two to eight pounds per hundred, and in 1510 the Venetians would only sell a hundred for sixteen pounds. In 1507 the Holy Roman Emperor asked the Duke of Bavaria to stop cutting yew, but the trade was profitable, and in 1532 the royal monopoly was granted for the usual quantity "if there are that many." In 1562, the Bavarian government sent a long plea to the Holy Roman Emperor asking him to stop the cutting of yew, and outlining the damage done to the forests by its selective extraction, which broke the canopy and allowed wind to destroy neighbouring trees. In 1568, despite a request from Saxony, no royal monopoly was granted because there was no yew to cut, and the next year Bavaria and Austria similarly failed to produce enough yew to justify a royal monopoly. Forestry records in this area in the 17th century do not mention yew, and it seems that no mature trees were to be had. The English tried to obtain supplies from the Baltic, but at this period bows were being replaced by guns in any case.
Today European yew is widely used in landscaping and ornamental horticulture. Due to its dense, dark green, mature foliage, and its tolerance of even very severe pruning, it is used especially for formal hedges and topiary. Its relatively slow growth rate means that in such situations it needs to be clipped only once per year (in late summer).
Well over 200 cultivars of T. baccata have been named. The most popular of these are the Irish yew (T. baccata 'Fastigiata'), a fastigiate cultivar of the European yew selected from two trees found growing in Ireland, and the several cultivars with yellow leaves, collectively known as "golden yew". In some locations, e.g. when hemmed in by buildings or other trees, an Irish yew can reach 20 feet in height without exceeding 2 feet in diameter at its thickest point, although with age many Irish yews assume a fat cigar shape rather than being truly columnar.
European yew will tolerate growing in a wide range of soils and situations, including shallow chalk soils and shade, although in deep shade its foliage may be less dense. However it cannot tolerate waterlogging, and in poorly-draining situations is liable to succumb to the root-rotting pathogen Phytophthora cinnamomi.
In Europe, Taxus baccata grows naturally north to Molde in southern Norway, but it is used in gardens further north. It is also popular as a bonsai in many parts of Europe and makes a handsome small to large sized bonsai.
Musical instruments 
The late Robert Lundberg, a noted luthier who performed extensive research on historical lute-making methodology, states in his 2002 book Historical Lute Construction that yew was historically a prized wood for lute construction. European legislation establishing use limits and requirements for yew limited supplies available to luthiers, but it was apparently as prized among medieval, renaissance, and baroque lute builders as Brazilian Rosewood is among contemporary guitar-makers for its quality of sound and beauty.
Clippings from ancient specimens in the UK, including the Fortingall Yew, are being taken to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh to form a mile-long hedge. The purpose of this "Yew Conservation Hedge Project" is to maintain the DNA of Taxus baccata. The species is threatened by felling, partly due to rising demand from pharmaceutical companies, and disease.
See also 
- Rushforth, K. (1999). Trees of Britain and Europe. Collins ISBN 0-00-220013-9.
- Douglas Simms. "A Celto-Germanic Etymology for Flora and Fauna which will Boar Yew". Retrieved 10 July 2008.
- Theophrastus, Enquiry into Plants, iii.10.2; iv.1.3, etc.
- Mitchell, A. F. (1972). Conifers in the British Isles. Forestry Commission Booklet 33.
- "The Hawfinch". Wbrc.org.uk. Retrieved 2010-07-22.
- Snow, David; Snow, Barbara (2010). Birds and Berries. London: A & C Black. pp. 29–30. ISBN 9781408138229.
- Dallimore, W., & Jackson, A. B. (1966). A Handbook of Coniferae and Ginkgoaceae 4th ed. Arnold.
- Lewington, A., & Parker, E. (1999). Ancient Trees: Trees that Live for a Thousand Years. London: Collins & Brown Ltd. ISBN 1-85585-704-9
- Harte, J. (1996). How old is that old yew? At the Edge 4: 1–9. Available online.
- Kinmonth, F. (2006). Ageing the yew – no core, no curve? International Dendrology Society Yearbook 2005: 41–46.
- "Monumentos Naturales" (in Spanish). Gobierno del Principado de Asturias. Retrieved 14 March 2013. Contains Word document "Monumento Natural Teixu de Bermiego".
- "Yew". Provet. Retrieved 23 March 2013.
- Thomas, Peter A.; Packham, John R. (2007). Ecology of Woodlands and Forests: Description, Dynamics and Diversity. Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge Univ. Press. pp. 226–227. ISBN 0521542316.
- "How poisonous is the yew?". Ancient-yew.org. Retrieved 2010-07-22.
- Tiwary, A. K.; Puschner, B.; Kinde, H.; Tor, E. R. (2005). "Diagnosis of Taxus (Yew) poisoning in a horse" (pdf). Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigation 17 (3): 252–255. doi:10.1177/104063870501700307. PMID 15945382.
- "Taxus baccata, yew - THE POISON GARDEN website". Thepoisongarden.co.uk. Retrieved 2010-07-22.
- White, T.S.; Boreham, S.; Bridgland, D. R.; Gdaniec, K.; White, M. J. (2008). "The Lower and Middle Palaeolithic of Cambridgeshire". English Heritage Project. Retrieved 23 March 2013.
- List of world largest trees
- Ohlmarks, Å. (1994). Fornnordiskt lexikon. p 372.
- Hellquist, O. (1922). Svensk etymologisk ordbok. p 266
- Andrews, W.(ed.)(1897)Antiquities and Curiosities of the Church, William Andrews & Co., London 1897; pp. 256-278: 'Amongst the ancients the yew, like the cypress, was regarded as the emblem of death... As, to the early Christian, death was the harbinger of life; he could not agree with his classic forefathers in employing the yew or the cyprus, "as an emblem of their dying for ever." It was the very antithesis of this, and as an emblem of immortality, and to show his belief in the life beyond the grave, that led to his cultivation of the yew in all the burying grounds of those who died in the new faith, and this must be regarded as the primary idea of its presence there... Evelyn’s opinion is more decisive: —"that we find it so universally planted in our churchyards, was doubtless, from its being thought a symbol of immortality, the tree being so lasting and always green."'
- "Palm Sunday: All About Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion". Churchyear.net. Retrieved 2010-07-22.
- Dún Laoghaire Parks Some yew trees were actually there before the church was built...King Edward 1st ordered yew trees to be planted in churchyards to offer some protection to the buildings... Yews are poisonous so by planting them in the churchyards cattle that were not allowed to graze on hallowed ground were safe from eating yew. Yew was the traditional wood used for making long bows – planting in churchyards ensured availability in times of need. Yew branches on touching the ground take root and sprout again – this became the symbol of death, rebirth and therefore immortality.
- Tekol, Y. (2007). "The medieval physician Avicenna used an herbal calcium channel blocker, Taxus baccata L.". Phytotherapy Research 21 (7): 701–702. doi:10.1002/ptr.2173. PMID 17533639.
- National Non-Food Crops Centre, "Yew". Retrieved on 2009-04-23.
- Asia Medicinal Plants Database
- "...because that our sovereign lord the King, by a petition delivered to him in the said parliament, by the commons of the same, hath perceived That the great scarcity of bowstaves is now in this realm, and the bowstaves that be in this realm be sold as an excessive price...", Statutes at Large
- Yew: A History. Hageneder F. Sutton Publishing, 2007. ISBN 978-0-7509-4597-4.
- Hillier Nurseries, "The Hillier Manual Of Trees And Shrubs", David & Charles, 1998, p863
- D'Cruz, Mark. "Ma-Ke Bonsai Care Guide for Taxus baccata". Ma-Ke Bonsai. Retrieved 2011-11-19.
- Ross, Shan (7 November 2008) "You may not be able to trace your roots back 5,000 years – but yew trees can". Edinburgh. The Scotsman. Retrieved 30 November 2008.
- Chetan, A. and Brueton, D. (1994) The Sacred Yew, London: Arkana, ISBN 0-14-019476-2
- Conifer Specialist Group (1998) Taxus baccata, In: IUCN 2006/UCN Red List of Threatened Species, WWW page (Accessed 3 February 2007)
- Hartzell, H. (1991) The yew tree: a thousand whispers: biography of a species, Eugene: Hulogosi, ISBN 0-938493-14-0
- Simón, F. M. (2005) Religion and Religious Practices of the Ancient Celts of the Iberian Peninsula, e-Keltoi, v. 6, p. 287-345, ISSN 1540-4889 online
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