Yew grows well in sun or shade in zones 5 through 7. Many people have domesticated yew trees or shrubs in their yards trimmed to perfect boxes or balls. These are lovely, dense evergreens that are easily trained to a hedge or ornamental shape. It has soft, flat, light green needles arranged in neat rows upon the stem. These trees are dioecious, having separate male and female plants. The male plants produce something rather cone-like, while the female plants produce something rather berry-like. The “berry” (called an aril) is a fleshy red capsule, open at one end, enclosing a hard, dark green, extremely poisonous seed.
Yew is native to Europe and parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It is largely used across America as an ornamental. While they are generally heavily pruned in the US, left to their own devices, yew trees can grow to 50 feet tall.
History and Folklore
Yew is very strong and resilience was once considered the material for making longbows. Ideally, the wood for a yew bow was taken from the juncture of heartwood and sapwood, and the bow contained both. Fine bows were traded between the British Isles and the mainland during the Middle Ages and as supplies were depleted, a tax of four bowstaves per tun was imposed on every ship coming into English ports in 1472. In 1562, the Bavarian government sent a plea to the Holy Roman Empire to stop cutting yew, siting damage done to the forests. The great, ancient yews protected other trees in the forest from severe winds. Lucky for the yew trees and their neighbors, guns began replacing bows soon after.
Yew was (and is) also popular in England as a hedge tree, especially in churchyards where they stood watch over the headstones, perhaps in reference to their symbolism of immortality, which is likely older than Christianity, or it may have been more practical. Planting trees known to instantly kill grazing animals would have discouraged herders from allowing their animals to trample sacred sites. Some yew trees still stand in churchyards that are over 500 years old. Some claim a few of these yews are over 2000 years old and remnants of pre-Christian holy sites that were co-opted by the church. Old Irish tales speak of Baile who died of grief for Ailinn and from his grave a yew tree grew.
The tradition of planting yews in churchyards and graveyards was immortalized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in the following poem:
Old warder of these buried bones,
And answering now my random strokes
With fruitful cloud and living smoke,
Dark yew, that graspest at the stones
And dippest toward the dreamless head,
To thee too comes the golden hour
When flower is feeling after flower.”
Yew poisoning seems to have been a popular choice for honorable suicide among the ancient Celts. In their writings, Caesar, Florus and Orosius each recounted instances where Celtic individuals or groups took their own lives by yew poisoning rather than submit to their conquerors.
The Temple of Uppsala in Sweden was a temple devoted to the Norse Gods. There is little archaeological evidence for this temple, but there are a few written accounts from Adam of Bremens, the Norse sagas and Gesta Danorum. No one is sure what happened to it, though it may be speculated that the cathedral that currently stands in the town was built upon its ruins. According to legend, a great sacred evergreen stood in the temple. It is believed by some that this tree was a yew.
Yew is sacred in many Heathen and Druidic traditions. It is one of the five sacred trees of Irish mythology known as the Tree of Ross.
The aril (the fleshy part of the berry) is a tasty treat for many types of birds including thrushes and waxwings. They swallow it and the hard poisonous seed whole. The seed passes through them intact and germinates where it falls. Because of this, European yew has established a foothold in the Americas where it is an alien invader, though not as invasive as some other plants due to its slow growth.
Yew trees are sold as ornamentals in most nurseries. They are very slow-growing (and can live for thousands of years) so they are generally kept as shrubs rather than trees.
Harvesting & Storage
Cut boughs as you need them. They will stay fresh for some time in Yule wreaths and can be burned shortly after Yule in your New Year’s cleansing ceremony. Needles can be dried right on the branch or stripped and laid flat to dry to make incense.
Yew is a faerie plant and one of those plants that has a long association with witches. Yew is associated with death and rebirth and is appropriate for funeral wreaths and memorial plantings. Likewise, it is appropriate for decorating for Yule, as the winter solstice represents the cusp between the season of life and the season of death.
Although the practice is not recommended, yew may be burned during spells to raise the dead. Their spirits will be trapped within the smoke until you release them.
Yew is associated with divination and astral travel and anything that relates to communication or travel between realms. The wood is also very attractive in form and coloring. This makes it especially useful for making runes, Ogham sticks, frames for scrying mirrors, talking boards and other divination tools, but it should not be used for goblets or any dishes that will be eaten from. People have died from drinking wine stored in yew barrels!
Yew wood is flexible and strong and was traditionally used for bows. It is also very pretty and sometimes gnarly in form. This makes it ideal for use to create useful pieces of art. Do not use it to make anything that will be eaten or drunk from because it is very poisonous.
Extracts from yew have been used for the treatment of cancer. Yew is, however, extremely toxic and should never be used by the lay herbalist. Ever.
The fleshy berry is edible, but the hard seed within is deadly poison. Best to leave it alone. The leaves also are poisonous. It is said that cattle who graze on yew will die within minutes.