English Yew - Taxus baccata

Main features

  • Coniferous tree growing to 25m 

  • Usually found in woodland, country estates, parks, gardens and, especially, old churchyards

  • Has reddish bark and trunk often deeply wavy - hollow in very old specimens

  • Needles are deep green and flat

  • Overall shape of the tree is broad at the base, narrowing to a tip at the top

  • Individual specimens are either male or female, with very small yellowish flower in spring on both

  • Female specimens produce berry-like fruit in summer to autumn - usually red but has a variant with yellow fruit

  • The "berries" are a fleshy aril encasing a single seed

  • Usually very little grows underneath it

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English Yew - Taxus baccata

Deadly poisonous tree - novice identification

Other common names: Common Yew, European Yew

 

Scientific name meaning: Taxus is derived from the Greek "Taxo" meanign to be ordered. Baccata has its origins in the Latin "Bacca/Baca" which is "a berry shaped like a pearl or dung of a goat". This is in reference to the tree's round berry-like fruit

Season All year

Habitat - where will I find it? Commonly found in and regularly associated with old churchyards, English Yew can be spotted in woodland, parks, country estates, and gardens as either a full tree or ornamental hedge. It is native to Europe, Northwest Africa ad Southeast Asia.

Description - what does it look like? A coniferous tree growing to 25m, English Yew is a long lived tree. It is believed some specimens in the UK are several thousand years old. 

The bark has a reddish colour to it and the trunk is deeply wavy. As the tree approaches around 1,000 years of age, it begins to hollow out. Very old specimens can give the false appearance that they are more than one tree.

The overall shape of the tree is broad at the base, narrowing to a point at the tip. Its needles are deep green and flat.

Individual trees are either male or female, and the flowers of both are small and yellowish in colour. 

The female trees produce berry-like fruit, which are in fact a single seed encased in a fleshy aril. 

The fruit is usually red, but there is a variant "Lutea" that produces yellow fruit.

The area below English Yew is usually clear of other growth

Possible lookalikes Easily confused with other Yews and some Firs. Firs can be distinguished from yew by two silvery lines they have on the base of their needles. If you are not confident you can tell Fir from Yew, do not harvest Fir for consumption.

Poisonous parts All of parts of the tree are deadly poisonous, with the exception of the fleshy aril surrounding the seeds. If the aril, which is very sweet, is to be consumed, the seed must be spat out.

It was for a long time believed that a swallowed seed would pass through the digestive tract intact. However, this is now thought to be untrue.

Yew has evolved to have its seeds dispersed by birds, which lack the necessary digestive chemicals to break down the seed wall. However, the digestive chemicals in a mammalian gut are now thought to be able to do this.

In addition, although there is no evidence that fungi growing on or around English Yew take up any toxins from the tree, there is no decisive evidence that they do not. If anybody knows of any, we would be most grateful for a link. 

And, mushrooms can engulf leaf litter, twigs, and bark readily, so there could be bits of English Yew encased within a mushroom that has formed on or near it

Use in herbal medicine Despite its severe toxicity, English Yew has been used to treat a variety of ailments from chest infection to heart conditions. However, its most famous medicinal use is perhaps in the treatment of cancer. The taxane Docetaxel, was originally extracted from the bark of the Yew to produce the chemotherapy drug Taxotere. The drug is almost entirely synthetic now, but clippings are still used in the process. Taxotere is used to treat numerous cancers including breast, ovarian, bladder, prostate, and lung.

The taxane Paclitaxel (trade name Taxol) has its origins in the bark of English Yew's relative Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia).

This tree is deadly poisonous

If you are suffering from any ailment or need medical advice, please see your General Practitioner

Other uses The heartwood of English Yew is strong and flexible, so highly desired by wood turners. It has been used to make furniture, plates and goblets - although there is some debate over the safety of this. 

Historically, it was used to make longbows. 

As a firewood it burns hot and long, but it should only be used in closed-door wood burners as the fumes are believed to be toxic

Hazards An extremely poisonous tree

Importance to other species Supports various organisms including fungi, insects and birds

Always stay safe when foraging. You need to be 100% sure of your identification, 100% sure that your foraged item is edible, and 100% sure that you are not allergic to it (it is good practice to always try a small amount of any new food you are consuming). If in doubt, leave it out!