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Taxus baccata
Taxus baccata (European Yew) shoot with mature and immature cones
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Pinophyta
Class: Pinopsida
Order: Pinales
Family: Taxaceae
Genus: Taxus
Species: T. baccata
Binomial name
Taxus baccata

Taxus baccata is a conifer native to western, central and southern Europe, northwest Africa, northern Iran and southwest Asia.[1] It is the tree originally known as yew, though with other related trees becoming known, it may be now known as the common yew, or European yew.



It is a small- to medium-sized evergreen tree, growing 10–20 metres (33–66 ft) (exceptionally up to 28 m/92 ft) tall, with a trunk up to 2 metres (6 ft 7 in) (exceptionally 4 m/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.[1][2]

European Yew cone (detailed)

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 6–9 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 2–3 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[3] and Great Tits.[4] 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.[1][2][5]

It is relatively slow growing, but 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 confirmed claims as high as 5,000-9,500 years,[6] 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.[7][8] Even with this lower estimate, Taxus baccata is the longest living plant in Europe.

Most parts of the tree are toxic, except the bright red aril surrounding the seed, enabling ingestion and dispersal by birds. The major toxin is the alkaloid taxane. The foliage remains toxic even when wilted or dried. Horses have the lowest tolerance, with a lethal dose of 200–400 mg/kg body weight, but cattle, pigs, and other livestock are only slightly less vulnerable.[9] Symptoms include staggering gait, muscle tremors, convulsions, collapse, difficulty breathing, and eventually heart failure. However, death occurs so rapidly that many times the symptoms are missed.


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 colour brown.[10]

Uses and traditions

Foliage of Irish Yew; note the leaves spreading all round the erect shoots

Yews are widely used in landscaping and ornamental horticulture, and are used especially for formal hedges and topiary. Well over 200 cultivars of Taxus baccata have been named. The most popular of these are the "Irish Yew" (Taxus 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". .[2][5]  In Europe, yew grows naturally north to Molde, but is used in gardens further north.

The precursors of chemotherapy drug Paclitaxel can be derived from the leaves of European Yew,[11] 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 paclitaxel for cancer treatments. Docetaxel (another taxane) can then be obtained by semi-synthetic conversion from the precursors.

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.)

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 died recently so they will find the guide in their return to the Land of Shadows. The yew tree can be found near chapels, churches and cemeteries since ancient times 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 is considered by several authors that the oldest yew tree in Europe is located in Bermiego, Asturias. It is known as «Teixu l'Iglesia» in asturian language. It is 15 meters tall with a trunk perimeter of 7 metres and a crown diameter of 10 meters. It was declared Natural Monument on April 27, 1995 by the Asturian Government and is protected by the Plan of Natural Resources.[12]

Germanic folk too, have thought the yew tree important, as the World Tree Yggdrasil is often said to be a yew [13].

In 1021, Avicenna introduced the medicinal use of Taxus baccata L for phytotherapy in The Canon of Medicine. He named this herbal drug as "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.[14]

An Irish Yew (Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata') planted at Kenilworth Castle

The yew is often found in church yards from England and Ireland to Galicia; some of these trees are exceptionally large (over 3 m diameter) and may be over 2,000 years old. It has been suggested that the enormous sacred evergreen at the Temple at Uppsala was an ancient yew tree.[15][16] The Christian church commonly found it expedient to take over these existing sacred sites for churches. It is sometimes suggested that these were planted as a symbol of long life or trees of death. An explanation that the yews were planted to discourage farmers and drovers from letting their animals wander into the burial grounds, with the poisonous foliage being the disincentive, may be intentionally prosaic. A more likely reason is that fronds and branches of yew were often used as a substitute for palms on Palm Sunday[17].

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 mediaeval 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, so 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 such 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 1600s 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.[18]

In the Central Himalayas, the plant is used as a treatment for breast and ovary cancer.[19]


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.[20]

Literary references

  • The Old English poem Beowulf describes a shield made of wood from a yew tree.
  • The yew tree is an iconic reference in the poetry of Sylvia Plath, particularly in several poems from her collection of poetry Ariel. (See "The Moon and the Yew Tree", "Little Fugue", and "Daddy".)
  • In Shakesphere's Titus Andronicus, Act 2 Scene 3, Tamora the Goth queen exclaims: "No sooner had they told this hellish tale\ But straight they told me they would bind me here\ Unto the body of a dismal yew"
  • In the Irish myth "The Love of Chu Chulainn and Fand", the warrior and the goddess meet beneath a yew tree's head at every quarter moon.
  • In John Webster's The White Devil a yew tree (spelt 'Eu') features heavily in an important recount of a dream sequence in Act 1 Scene 2, an ambiguous passage that can be interpreted as perhaps encouraging a double murder: "...both were strucke dead by that sacred Eu,/ in that base shallow grave that was their due."
  • John Keats refers to the yew in his "Ode on Melancholy", writing, "Make not your rosary of yew-berries, / Nor let the beetle, nor the death moth be / Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl / A partner in your sorrow's mysteries..." (lines 5-8).
  • In Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem "In Memoriam: A.H.H." the yew above Arthur Hallam's grave is addressed: "Old yew, which graspest at the stones/ That name the underlying dead,/ Thy fibres net the dreamless head,/ Thy roots are wrapped about the bones" (II, ln. 1-4).
  • A Yew tree is featured prominently in William Wordsworth's poems "Lines Left Upon a Seat in a Yew Tree" and "Yew-Trees".
  • In Alexandre Dumas's novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond Dantès is imprisoned in the Château d'If, which literally translates to "Castle of the Yew" (If is a small island in France, and the name may or may not derive from the word which means yew).
  • George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession uses a yew tree in the yard of Reverend Samuel Gardner.
  • In Section V of Little Gidding from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets (the last section of the poem), Eliot claims: "The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree/ Are of equal duration". In his poem, "Ash-Wednesday", he mentions the yew five times: "The silent sister veiled in white and blue/ Between the yews, behind the garden god, / Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but/ spoke no word"; "Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew"; "Will the veiled sister between the slender/ Yew trees pray for those who offend her"; "But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away/ Let the other yew be shaken and reply".
  • In J. R. R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion, Beleg Strongbow uses a bow made of yew. In The Hobbit, the eagle king complains of the men of Wilderland using bows made of yew to shoot at his people. Bard the Bowman uses a yew bow to fatally shoot the dragon Smaug.
  • The murderer in Agatha Christie's mystery A Pocket Full of Rye uses taxine (taxol), a poison derived from yew, to kill the victim. The victim lives at Yewtree Lodge.
  • In Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea series, both the wizard Ged and the Master Summoner carry staves of yew.
  • In J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Voldemort uses a wand made of yew. Additionally, the Malfoy Manor is surrounded by yew hedges.
  • The Yew is the subject of Swedish author Gunnar D Hansson's "lyrical monography" Idegransöarna (The Yew-tree Islands, 1994, untranslated to English). Hansson explores the yew in its uses (medicinal, lyrical, in place-names, etc) and its historical meaning. He speculates about the yew, and weaves a tale of prose poems, essays and lyrics, about the yew; the book takes the reader close to the yew in its relation to Hittites, Vikings, medicine, Robin Hood, Christmas, heathendom, etymology and mythology.
  • The Great Chain of Being, which proposes a strict, hierarchical order for the beings (divine entities, animals, and plants) in the universe, designates the yew as the lowest form of tree among plants.
  • In Erin Hunter's Warriors novel series, yew berries are said to be poisonous to cats, and are referred to as "deathberries". Several vital plot points are based around yew, like Yellowfang intentionally feeding her son Brokentail yew berries and killing him. In a later book in the series, Darkstripe's disloyalty to his Clan becomes obvious when he feeds Sorrelkit, who had followed him and heard him plotting with Tigerstar, some yew berries in an attempt to kill her, but thanks to immediate medical attention, Sorrelkit survives and reveals what Darkstripe had been doing.
  • In Brian Jacques' novel Redwall, Constance the Badger uses a Yew Sapling to build a Crossbow, with which they hope to kill Cluny the Scourge.


  1. ^ a b c Rushforth, K. (1999). Trees of Britain and Europe. Collins ISBN 0-00-220013-9.
  2. ^ a b c Mitchell, A. F. (1972). Conifers in the British Isles. Forestry Commission Booklet 33.
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b Dallimore, W., & Jackson, A. B. (1966). A Handbook of Coniferae and Ginkgoaceae 4th ed. Arnold.
  6. ^ Lewington, A., & Parker, E. (1999). Ancient Trees: Trees that Live for a Thousand Years. London: Collins & Brown Ltd. ISBN 1-85585-704-9
  7. ^ Harte, J. (1996). How old is that old yew? At the Edge 4: 1-9. Available online.
  8. ^ Kinmonth, F. (2006). Ageing the yew - no core, no curve? International Dendrology Society Yearbook 2005: 41-46.
  9. ^ Tiwary, A. K., Puschner, B., Kinde, H., & Tor, E. R. (2005). Diagnosis of Taxus (Yew) poisoning in a horse. J. Vet. Diagn. Invest. 17: 252–255.
  10. ^ Douglas Simms. "A Celto-Germanic Etymology for Flora and Fauna which will Boar Yew". Retrieved 10 July 2008.  
  11. ^ National Non-Food Crops Centre "Yew". Retrieved on 2009-04-23.
  12. ^ [1]
  13. ^
  14. ^ Yalcin Tekol (2007), "The medieval physician Avicenna used an herbal calcium channel blocker, Taxus baccata L.", Phytotherapy Research 21 (7): 701-2.
  15. ^ Ohlmarks, Å. (1994). Fornnordiskt lexikon. p 372.
  16. ^ Hellquist, O. (1922). Svensk etymologisk ordbok. p 266
  17. ^
  18. ^ Yew: A History. Hageneder F. Sutton Publishing, 2007. ISBN 978-0750945974.
  19. ^ Asia Medicinal Plants Database
  20. ^ 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.

See also


  • 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

External links



Up to date as of January 23, 2010

From Wikispecies

Taxus baccata


Main Page
Cladus: Eukaryota
Regnum: Plantae
Division: Pinophyta
Classis: Pinopsida
Ordo: Pinales
Familia: Taxaceae
Genus: Taxus
Species: Taxus baccata


Taxus baccata L., Sp. Pl. 1040. 1753.

  • Taxus baccata f. columnaris (Carrière ) Beissner, Handb. Nandelholzk. 170. 1891.
  • Taxus baccata f. compressa (Carrière ) Beissner, Handb. Nandelholzk. 171. 1891.
  • Taxus baccata f. expansa (Carrière) Handb. Nandelholzk. 171. 1891.
  • Taxus baccata f. fastigiata (Lindl.) Pilg., Planzenreich 18(4, 5): 115. 1903.
  • Taxus baccata f. imperialis Beissner, Handb. Nandelholzk. 171. 1891.
  • Taxus baccata f. intermedia (Carrière ) Beissner, Handb. Nandelholzk. 171. 1891.
  • Taxus baccata f. linearis (Carrière) Beissner, Handb. Nandelholzk. 175. 1891.
  • Taxus baccata f. pendula Pilger, Mitt. Deutsch. Dendrol. Ges. 25: 11. 1916.
  • Taxus baccata f. procumbens (Loudon) Pilger, Mitt. Deutsch. Dendrol. Ges. 25: 11. 1916.
  • Taxus baccata f. recurvata Beissner, Handb. Nandelholzk. 173. 1891.
  • Taxus baccata f. stricta Rehder, Bibl. Trees 2. 1949.
  • Taxus baccata var. columnaris Carrière, Traité gén. conif. 738. 1867.
  • Taxus baccata var. compressa Carrière, Traité gén. conif. 738. 1867.
  • 'Taxus baccata var. empetrifolia Spjut, ined.
  • Taxus baccata var. expansa Carrière, Traité gén. conif. 738. 1867.
  • Taxus baccata var. fastigiata (Lindl.) Loud., Arb. frutic. britt. 4: 2066 (1838).
  • Taxus baccata var. hibernica Hook. ex Henkel & Hochst., Syn. Nadelhölzer 356. 1865.
  • Taxus baccata var. intermedia Carrière, Traité gén. conif. 738. 1867.
  • Taxus baccata var. imperialis Carrière, Traité gén. conif. 520. 1855.
  • Taxus baccata var. linearis Carrière, Traité gén. Conif. 738. 1867.
  • Taxus baccata var. pendula Kent in Veitch, Man. Conif. ed. 2, 129. 1900.
  • Taxus baccata var. procumbens Loudon, Encycl. trees shrubs 2067. 1844.
  • Taxus baccata var. recurvata (Hort. ex Lawson) Carrière, Traité gén. Conif. 520. 1855.
  • Taxus baccata stricta Lawson, Agric. Man. 398 1836.
  • Taxus communis pendula J. Nelson, Pinaceae 172. 1866.
  • Taxus fastigiata Lindl., Syn. Brit. Flora 241. 1829.
  • Taxus recurvata Hort. ex Lawson, Abietineae—List Pl. Fir Tribe No. 10, 83. 1851.
  • Taxus recurvata var. linearis (Carrière) Spjut
  • Taxus recurvata var. intermedia (Carrière) Spjut


  • USDA, ARS, National Genetic Resources Program. Germplasm Resources Information Network - (GRIN) [Data from 07-Oct-06]. 80070

Vernacular names

Català: Teix
Deutsch: Europäische Eibe
Eesti: Harilik jugapuu
English: (European) Yew
Español: Tejo Europeo
Galego: Teixo
Hrvatski: Tisa
Italiano: Tasso
Nederlands: Taxus, Venijnboom
日本語: ヨーロッパイチイ
Polski: cis pospolity
Română: Tisa
Русский: Тис ягодный
Suomi: Euroopanmarjakuusi
Vèneto: Pola da nass, Tuja
Wikimedia Commons For more multimedia, look at Taxus baccata on Wikimedia Commons.


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