English Yew, Taxus baccata
tree of the family Taxaceae (English Yew, Torreya)
It belongs to the same order of the Gymnospermes as conifers but it does not produce cones and is not resinous.
Etymology: from the Celtic " ivin " or Greek hyfe, "cloth", because clothes were madefrom its wood fibres ; its Latin name " Taxus baccata " "toxic" derives from Greek "taxis" meaning order or arrangement, referring to the very regular arrangement of leaves on the twigs, and "baccata", which means "bearing berries" related to the fruit ressembling to a bay or bacca.
The Romans used the branches and bark of the yew to manufacture filters poisoned. From the word Taxus derives the Latin word taxicum meaning "poison" and gave the word "toxic" and the word "textile", woven with the fibers of the bark. The poison of the tree is named "taxine". The Gauls who used this poison for hunting called IVOS which gave the name "If" (in french) that appears for the first time in the Chanson de Roland in the 12th century.
Origin: Southern Europe, Caucasus and North America. One thinks that it appeared 120 million years ago.
Habitat: shade, appreciating a humid atmosphere. The yew tree grows in forest, as at the time of the Celts...
Lifespan: 1500 years (one of most long-lived).
Maximum size: 15 m tall.
Shape: sometimes pyramidal, often irregular, ghostly. Its branches are dense.
Trunk: right and robust, encircled with branches from the bottom.
Bark thin, shedding in fibrous reddish-brown-red flakes.
Persistent foliage. Solitary needles (not grouped by 2 - 5 as for pines), inserted in spiral all around stems but appear to form two ranks opposite because of the torsion of the petiole on the horizontal stems. They are flexible, flat and pointed, but not prickly, without stripe to the back (what differentiates them from fir needles) and glossy dark green. They measure 3 cm long and 3 mm broad. They are decurrent (their blade extends along the stem at the base).
Flowers: The male flowers carry a relatively big number of stamens in the form of ecu with from 6 to 8 pollen bags. The female flowers, carried by short stems axillaries, are constituted of an unique final ovule, encircled with scaly bracts.
Fleshy fruit of appearance of a red berry (aril), soft and edible, encircling the seed. It is appreciated by the birds which disperse seeds.
Legends and traditions: In Greek and Roman mythology, the yew tree is devoted (as the Willow) to Hecate the guardian of the underworld giving spiritual and material wealth honor and wisdom conductor of souls swept away by the storm, but also the goddess of darkness and death. Its powers are formidable at night in the light of the moon on which she identifies herself and is regarded as the abode of the dead. It would link the underworld earth and sky.
Among the Celts it is a sacred tree of the Druids.
For Christians the yew is a symbol of the link between heaven and earth and is widely planted around churches and cemeteries because of its longevity and its toxicity which prevents access to livestock. Yew cemeteries in France is generally not common yew but Irish yew..
Uses: its heavy and solid wood, but also elastic, served for making arches (in Greek toxos), arrows and spades which were coated with toxic sap of the yew tree (taxine). Under controll, this toxic sap is advantageous: it enters into the composition of anti-cancerous medicaments, because the taxol decelerates the growth of the cancerous cells (American discovery of 1960 and continued research at the University of Gif-sur-Yvette in the 1980s). Docetaxel known as Taxotere, is of great interest in the treatment of metastatic breast cancer.
The fibres of the bark were transformed into cloths (hyfe mean "cloth"). The yew tree takes part well in topiary art because it supports pruning and grows densely. With the boxwood, he manufactures the "French-style" gardens.
Except for the aril, the yew tree contains the taxine, a very poisonous cardio-active alkaloid.
yew tree of Ireland (to the left), fastigiate shape (upright branches), planted in graveyards;
yew tree of China, yellowish green and scattered leaves;
yew tree of Japan, dark green leaves shining on the top, yellowish green on the underside, and mucronate.
taxus baccata adpressa (to the right).