December 2015 - English (European) Yew
Churchyard Yews - shows English yew in background, and the more upright Irish Yew in foreground
Historically yew has spiritual significance. In Christianity, evergreen yew signified everlasting life with God and hence is known as the Tree of Life. It was used as the original Christmas tree. Before Christianity came to Britain, yew was used to honour the dead; pieces of yew buried with the body protecting the soul on the journey to the afterlife. Yew was associated with reincarnation and immortality. Drinking cups made of yew were regarded as having spiritual potency and relic boxes and magical tools were made from its wood; a sprig of yew was used by dowsers to find lost objects.
Yew wood is extremely durable and is used for furniture and a variety of tools. The oldest known wooden implement made of yew is a spear, about 50,000 years old, from Clacton-on Sea. Yew bows were the choice for hunting and warfare throughout most of Europe until the invention of firearms. Yew bark, leaves and seeds are poisonous, the poison used on arrows to aid hunting, and for more sinister purposes such as assassination and suicide. Now, the leaves of yew are used to produce the highly successful anticancer drug, taxol.
Yew is found primarily in the British Isles and 80-85% of these in churchyards. The Church is, therefore, custodian of these ancient trees. Bawburgh churchyard has 4 yew trees within its grounds, all varieties of the English (European) Yew (Taxus baccata). Yew trees can live to extreme ages. In Scotland there is a tree which is considered 3,000 years old. The trees in our churchyard are nothing like this old, the millennium yew is a mere baby, still a bush, planted 2000; the others (English and Irish varieties) are considered to be possibly just over a hundred years old, mere adolescents.
Although other parts of the yew are poisonous, the red flesh of the berries can be eaten (although reported to have laxative or diuretic effects). The drier and older the leaves, the more poisonous they are. Interestingly, foraging deer have been seen feeding on leaves and bark without any obvious adverse effects.
Yew trees are either male or female (dioecious), or have male and female elements on the same tree (monoecious). Male parts flower late winter/early spring, producing small catkins, which disperse their pollen in the wind. Only one seed is formed from each fertilized female flower, the fruit growing throughout the summer, ripening September time. Birds, such as thrushes and waxwings, feed on the red berries thus aiding seed distribution as the seeds pass through their bodies. Some birds, such as hawfinches, greenfinches and great tits, can open the seeds and eat the contents.
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