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Those three little words….

 

’I Love Yew’

 

That’s ‘Yew’, as in Taxus Baccata, not as in ‘You’.

 

An account of European Yew, its place in folklore, its historical use and its use today.

 

It all started over 50 years ago in a history lesson about one of the incursions into the east of Great Britain by mainland European invaders. I was informed that the English bowmen – arguably the best in the world – would gather in the local churchyard where the church served as the strongest, most heavily constructed building in many a community, thus providing their stronghold. There, in the grounds of the churchyard and cemetery, would have been planted many a yew tree to supply the bowmen with an inexhaustible source of yew to make new longbows from, should one of their bows become damaged in conflict.

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Those readers who are still awake and attentive, might well have spotted a flaw in that history lesson. Just imagine Johnny Bowman, his longbow newly snapped, as he pops over to Marcel, or Claude, or whoever it is who is intent on capturing the wealth in the church, and says to him (and I paraphrase) ‘I say chaps, do you think that you could put this conflict on hold for a few weeks whilst I fashion a new longbow from yonder yew tree’. Had he done so, we might well have lost that conflict! Undoubtedly, yews and churches go together in UK, but of course, my teacher was talking tosh and I was far too respectful and impressionable a youngster to question it; on the contrary, I went home, took the hand-axe from the coal-shed and made for the nearest woodland, where I cut down a hazel pole and fashioned a very crude bow out of it. Regretfully, the very first time that I strung my bow, it snapped.

At about this time, the woodworking bug had bitten hard and my Woodwork teacher (the aptly named Mr Whittle) was my immediate target upon reaching school the next day, when I asked him why my bow had cracked and what it was that made yew so special. ‘It’s all in the cell structure….’ he said, ‘…highly flexible cell walls, tightly packed together make for a strong, but flexible shaft’. He then took a piece of yew off the timber rack, passed it through a thicknesser and cleaned up the end grain on a disk sander. I was blown away! The depth of colour, the contrasts and the contortions in the grain made it unlike any wood I’d seen before. Mr Whittle (Reg) appreciated my interest and gave me a little piece to take home to show my mum. ‘Don’t eat it, it’ll cause hallucinations’, he said.

Yikes! So there I was, a spotty adolescent in the mid-60s, with all that was going on in the sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll world, psychedelia looming down upon me, and I had the most colourful piece of wood on earth, and it was hallucinogenic  – how much more kudos could a youngster handle! Well, that’s how it started, an interest in yew that I hold to this day, but how about that history lesson; what was the true reason for yew trees being planted in churchyards?


 

 

There are thousands of churchyards and cemeteries in England and Wales where yew trees can be found, so clearly there is a strong link, but it is an inescapable fact that more than 500 of these yew trees pre-date the buildings around them, so clearly, the trees weren’t planted there because of the religious significance of the buildings. Consider the pre-Christian inhabitants of our shores; to them, it was the forces and the wonder of nature that provided the structure for their spiritual beliefs, and what else was there around them that could come anywhere near to matching the age or the grandeur of the yew tree? The yew tree entered into mythology and spiritualism, it became revered and even worshipped, both for the good and for the evil for which it could be used; thus the yew was seen, simultaneously as a symbol of immortality and as an omen of doom.

However, we need to delve even deeper into pre-history to discover the roots of man’s involvement with yew. A little over 100 years ago, in 1911, in the town of Clacton on the east coast of England, archaeologists discovered a wooden spear-head, fashioned from yew and believed to be in the region of 450,000 years old, making it one of the oldest known wooden artefacts. Fast forward to a few centuries BC and the ancient Greek philosophers such as Theophrastus, ponder over the origins of yew, and especially of the derivation of its name. Indeed, the very name of Taxus has had its lead-syllable of ‘tax’ adopted by numerous ancient languages, as their stem for the word ‘toxic’. In 1735, when Carl Linnaeus wrote his dissertation on plant classification, and then founded his renowned and universally accepted system of the classification of living things, he adopted the Latin term of Taxus for yew, giving credence and gravity to the fact that yew was known for its poisonous properties.

The greatest difficulty in determining the age of a yew tree is its growth pattern. Yew trees can reach a great age and are generally accepted to be amongst the oldest living organisms on our planet. However, the original tree rarely exceeds 2,000 years, by which time it has become prone to decomposition of the heartwood, and many suffer this fate by the time they reach a few centuries in age, thus making growth-ring counting an impossible task. Indeed, most of our ancient yews become completely hollow, a fact which is often exploited in localities where tourism is an important industry.

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At Much Marcle, in Herefordshire, England, the parishioners set about cleaning up their ancient yew in a bid to restore it to health. Their parish records state that, “We estimate that we have probably removed about 6 ton of dead timbers and unnecessary branches, which were resting on the ground. It took 45 Man hours, and more than 8 trailer loads of rubbish to do this work. We think the Tree will appreciate what we have done to lighten its load”. When the work was complete, a set of 3 benches was constructed inside the trunk, so that visitors to the church could sit inside it.

Fortunately for the decaying yew, it has a regenerative trick up its sleeve; it develops new growth from the outer margins of the trunk, at ground level, surrounding the original trunk with new growth. Effectively, the yew tree has the ability to regenerate itself from the roots upwards, which accounts for the ten known examples in the UK of yew trees which first grew in the 10th Century. In Scotland, at Fortingall, there is a yew tree which is understood to be the oldest tree in Britain, although experts disagree regarding its true age, placing it at somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 years.

Little wonder that yew trees became so revered, that superstition took a hold, and that yew became the centre of many a tradition and belief. Many a rural location, with homesteads scattered about, would need a meeting place where local and topical matters could be discussed, thus the site of the yew tree, with all its spiritual significance, became the site of local meeting places and local courts of justice. Such sites were frequently chosen as cemeteries, with the belief that the great age of the yew tree offered immortality to the soul of the deceased, whilst it was also believed that the roots of the yew would grow through the corpse (especially, through the eye sockets), thus trapping the body and soul underground and preventing evil influences from releasing it back onto a more earthly world. It was, therefore, a natural progression from this, that when Christianity was introduced, many such meeting places were chosen as the site for building a place of worship.


 

 

When country people fell victim to ‘the plague’, the area of the churchyard in which they were buried would have greenery from the yew trees cut down and scattered over the ground, in the belief that its acidity and its toxins would counteract those of the rotting corpse. Conversely, fronds of yew greenery would be cut down and laid upon the pathway to the church door at Easter time, simulating the way in which the ground before Christ’s feet was strewn with palm fronds when he rode an ass into Jerusalem. On a more mundane note, farmers whose land was adjacent to church yards and cemeteries would be sure to keep their hedges and fences in good order for fear of their livestock straying into the holy ground and grazing on the yews.

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So what of the toxic qualities of yew? Just about the whole tree is toxic, indeed, the only part which can safely be eaten, is the red, fleshy aril which develops as a seed case to each seed, but don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security if you decide to eat them, because the seed inside it is poisonous! So too, is the timber, especially when inhaled or ingested as dust, and the early peasants who scattered yew leaves over graves were correct in their belief of its toxicity, although I don’t know if the effects that they sought would take place. Even the pollen released by the male yew tree, is a cytotoxic substance! The major toxin within the tree is Taxine, which can prove fatal when ingested in sufficient quantities, although horses are especially vulnerable and need only to ingest a small amount of leaves before the taxine takes effect. This has been known to man for many millennia, indeed, during the Gallic wars in which the mighty Roman Empire subjugated much of the former Celtic regions of Europe, Julius Caesar recorded in his writings, that Catuvolcus, chief of the Eburones chose to commit suicide by eating yew leaves, rather than submit to Rome. Similarly, taxines were the chosen vehicle of suicide amongst many a soldier amongst the Cantabrian and Astures armies in 22BC and 25BC respectively.

Interestingly, the flower of the male plant bears a yellowish-white globe-like structure, and it is this element of the yew which bears the most toxin.  The Ogren Plant Allergy Scale (OPALS), lists plant allergens on a scale of 1, through to 10, and declares that this is a ‘10’ on their scale, whereas the female flower can be as low as ‘1’.

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In 1021, Avicenna (a Persian philosopher) made the first recorded use of yew extracts as a medicine, naming his herbal drug ‘Zarnab’ and using it to treat cardiac disorders. He knew what he was doing, for in the late 1960s, western medicine suddenly realised the importance of this drug as a calcium channel blocker, and has since used it extensively. Furthermore, in 1967, the researchers Wall and Wani developed a process to extract paclitaxel (Taxol), an anti-cancer treatment, from the leaves of the Pacific Yew (Taxus Brevifolia), but this process was fraught with difficulties. Extraction rates were poor and destruction of Pacific Yew became an issue, with Al Gore stepping in to add weight to the anti-Taxol debate. However, it was then discovered that the European yew, Taxus Baccata, yielded very significantly higher amounts of the drug, and that the process of extraction was considerably simpler. Nowadays, yew is still involved in the production of Taxol, but the process now uses small amounts of it as a catalyst for a semi-synthetic process. Meanwhile, in the Central Himilayas, extracts of yew are currently used as treatment for breast and ovarian cancer.

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The tree itself is an evergreen softwood and it is dioecious; the male and female flowers grow on different trees. However, with the yew’s ability to generate new growth from its roots, it occasionally happens that a new stem of a female tree, grows as a male off-spring, and vice versa. Indeed, the tabloid press recently reported the ‘…sensation’ of Scotland’s oldest yew tree, the Fortingall Yew, undergoing a ‘…sex change’; a classic piece of sensationalist, tabloid reporting of an event which in fact, was quite normal in the natural world, and simply an example of monoecious sub-growth. Typically, mature yew trees grow to about 22 yds (20 metres) in height and can reach a girth of about 7 to 8 yds (6 to 7 meters) before the heartwood decays and subsequent, regenerative growth develops, in which case the tree can be as much as 40 ft (13 meters) in girth. The foliage is of dark green, needle-like leaves, generally between 0.5 and 1.5 inches (1.2 and 3.5cm) in length, arranged in pairs along a stem. The seed-cones are unusual, in that they are single-seeded and develop with an aril, which in turn develops into a red, fleshy, open-topped outer casing, whilst the male reproductive element is a yellowish-white, globe-like flower which can be mistaken by casual observers, for a seed.

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The timber of the yew is slow growing, so is a close grained, dense timber with closely spaced growth rings and closed pores; this makes the timber very strong and also very flexible. This feature of the timber accounts for its early use for longbows and the standard method of making these is to use a length of straight-grained timber from the main trunk, which has both heartwood and sapwood running along it.

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The heartwood is always used on the inside of the bow, as it remains strong when put under compression, whereas the sapwood is on the outside of the longbow to maximise on its tensile strength and its ability to stretch and return to its original shape. However, the typical growth pattern is such that straight-grained timber is rarely found, indeed, yew is more normally prized for the random grain patterns that it produces, often interspersed with clusters of tiny knots, a feature which is sometimes referred to as ‘Pippy’. This problem of finding suitable material for longbow-making resulted in considerable shortages of suitable timber throughout Europe, with all manner of trade restrictions formerly in force.

The heartwood is a deep orange, whereas the sapwood is much lighter and often quite yellow. Purple features can often be found within the grain, and this is generally explained by the presence of mineral deposits in the timber. These features, along with the random nature of the grain pattern, makes yew a highly decorative timber which has been used in the past for veneer production, although more recently, as the trend towards the inclusion of more natural features in our furniture and accessories gathers pace, use of yew as solid timber has become more prevalent, especially in the making of natural edge bowls, for which it is highly prized amongst UK turners.

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It is often the case that natural ‘shakes’ can be found in the timber and where these have been present for some time, the tree might have developed deposits of its resin into the cracks, which then appear as fine white lines following the grain. Other features formerly treated as defects, but currently more acceptable, are bark and dead-wood incursions, which generally appear as black lines and patches.

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The late Robert Lundberg, a noted luthier, conducted extensive research into the history of lute making, and found that Taxus Baccata was the preferred wood used by lute makers, but throughout Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque times, the shortage of yew caused by its extensive use for long-bows, resulted in its supply being quite limited. Supplies were sought further afield in mainland Europe, but many countries were imposing trade restrictions on the timber because the shortage was so widespread.

 

 

Credits:

www.woodlandtrust.org.uk

Asia Medical Plants Database

Chetan, A. and Brueton, D. (1994)The Sacred Yew,

Simón, F. M. (2005) Religion and Religious Practices of the Ancient Celts of the Iberian Peninsula

http://www.eol.org/pages/1033691/overview

http://www.thepoisongarden.co.uk/

https://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/

http://mythsandlegendsofcheshire.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/robin-hood.html

http://www.wood-database.com/european-yew

Bevan-Jones, Robert (2004).The ancient yew: a history of Taxus Baccata

http://www.allergyfree-gardening.com, OPALS; the World’s First Plant-Allergy Scale

Lundberg, Robert, (2002), Historical Lute Construction

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Friday the 23rd. Thanks for visiting Woodturners Unlimited.