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A tree 30 to 40, rarely 50 or 60 ft high, forming in age a short, enormously thick trunk, clothed with red-brown peeling bark, and crowned with a rounded or wide-spreading head of branches. Leaves spirally attached to the twigs, but by the twisting of the stalks brought more or less into two opposed ranks; they are of a dark, glossy, almost black-green above, grey, pale green or sometimes yellowish beneath, the stomatic lines indistinct, linear, 1⁄2 to 11⁄4 in. long, 1⁄16 to 1⁄12 in. wide, more gradually tapered to a fine point than any other of the species here mentioned. Flowers unisexual, with the sexes almost invariably on separate trees, produced in spring from the leaf-axils of the preceding summer’s twigs. Male a globose cluster of stamens; female borne close to the end of the shoot, and consisting of an ovule surrounded by small bracts. What is usually termed the fruit is a fleshy cup developed from a disk in which the ovule is set. This cup is bright red (sometimes yellow), juicy, and encloses the nut-like seed except at the top.
Native of Europe (including Britain), N. Africa, and W. Asia. In Europe the yew has been on the retreat ever since man acquired the ability to fell it. Many ancient stands on the continent have been reduced to stunted remnants or exterminated, place-names often indicating its earlier presence in areas from which it has long since disappeared. In the British Isles too, where the climate is more favourable to it than in continental Europe, it is now far less common than in former times. Evelyn wrote in 1662: ‘He that in winter should behold some of our highest Hills in Surrey, clad with whole Woods of these two last sort of Trees [yew and box] … might without the least violence to his Imagination, easily phansie himself transported into some new, or enchanted Country …’ The most complete surviving stand is in Kingley Vale on the South Downs near Chichester. There are smaller pure stands on the chalks of southern England and the limestones of the northwest, and the yew is still fairly frequent as an understorey in beechwoods.
No tree has become more woven into the history and folklore of Great Britain than the yew. All through the Middle Ages and until gunpowder came into general use, yew wood was more valued than any other for the manufacture of bows, long the national weapon of offence; but Spanish-grown wood was considered the best. In earlier ages still, before the conversion of this country to Christianity, yews were, no doubt, sacred trees, and the Druids erected their emples near them. The early Christians made a practice of building their churches on sites previously held sacred by the Britons, and thus perpetuated that association of the yew with religious sites which has lasted until now.
The yew is the longest lived of all native trees, retaining its health and verdure even when the trunk has been hollow for many centuries, and clinging to life even when much of that has been destroyed. The actual age of the many large trees in the British Isles is impossible to estimate with any certainty, since the earlier measurements (in some cases going back to the 17th century) are mostly unreliable. What is certain is that the age once often attributed in local guide-books and histories to yews of large girth and venerable appearance was greatly exaggerated. A tree 5 ft in diameter at 5 ft is unlikely to have started its life much earlier than the reign of Elizabeth I. Swanton, in the work cited below, gives the following estimates for the rate of growth of yews in terms of the number of years needed to gain 1 ft in diameter:
Youth (to 12 ft in girth): 65 years or less.
Maturity (12 to 24 ft in girth): 75 years.
Old Age (24 to 30 ft in girth): 80 years.
Extreme old age (over 30 ft): 100 years.
Converted into gain in girth over a ten-year period these estimates become for Youth: 51⁄2 in. or more; for Maturity: 5 in. (c) 41⁄2 in.; for Old Age: 31⁄2 in. For trees 30 ft in girth he refused an age of more than 800 years, but was prepared to accept a pre-Conquest date for the two famous Surrey churchyard yews (Tandridge and Crowhurst), and those at South Hayling and Mamhilad (see below). But recent measurements by Alan Mitchell show that a very slow girth-increase – about 2 in. in ten years – may set in well before a girth of 20 ft is reached. If an average of 5 in. in ten years is assumed up to 15 ft in girth, the age of trees 30 ft in girth must then be well over 1,000 years. The following works have been devoted to the British yews:
Lowe, John. – The Yew-trees of Great Britain and Ireland. 1897.
Cornish, Vaughan. – The Churchyard Yew and Immortality. 1944.
Swanton, E. H. – The Yew Trees of England. 1958.
The following measurements (except of the Darley Dale tree) are by Alan Mitchell. All the trees in the first list grow in churchyards, except the Keffolds yew (which is not in Lowe’s work and was scarcely known until E. H. Swanton called attention to it in 1901 in The Surrey Magazine). Loose, Maidstone, Kent, male, 45 × 303⁄4 ft (1961); Cudham, Kent, 35 × 271⁄2 ft at 3 ft (1965); Ulcombe, Kent, 40 × 27 ft at 3 ft and 35 × 32 ft at ground level (1965); Keffolds, Haslemere, Surrey, 48 × 29 ft (1961), a splendid female tree with a bole of 9 ft; Hambledon, Surrey, 40 × 31 ft (1959), hollow; Crowhurst, Surrey, 35 × 301⁄4 ft (1959), hollow; Tandridge, Surrey, 45 × 331⁄4 ft (1959), a female tree with three stems; Crowhurst, Sussex, 38 × 273⁄4 ft (1965), a fine female tree; Selborne, Hants, male, 38 × 273⁄4 ft (1965); South Hayling, Hants, 32 × 331⁄2 ft at 3 ft (1961); Tisbury, Wilts, 35 × 31 ft (1959); Woolland, Dorset, 55 × 29 ft (1963), a fine tree, but one limb lost; Church Preen, Salop, 45 × 221⁄2 ft (1962), bole 8 ft; Mamhilad, Monm., 30 × 31 ft at 6 in. (1959); Gresford, Denb., 35 × 291⁄2 ft (1961), a fine male tree; Darley Dale, female, 261⁄2 ft at ground level (Swanton, 1950).
The preceding have been mentioned because of their large girth. The following, none of them in churchyards, are remarkable for their height: Close Walks, Midhurst, Sussex, 85 × 81⁄4 ft and 72 × 101⁄2 ft (1967); Fairlawne, Tonbridge, Kent, 74 × 8 ft (1965); Pusey House, Farringdon, Berks, 73 × 81⁄2 ft (1955); Walcombe, Wells, Som., 75 × 83⁄4 ft (1964); Lowther Castle, Penrith, Cumb., 71 × 103⁄4 ft and 71 × 13 ft (1967).
Only fragments remain of the famous Fortingall yew, at the entrance to Glen Lyon in Perthshire. An interesting account of it by the late Euan Cox will be found in New Flora and Sylva, Vol. 3 (1931), pp. 135-8; see also Loudon, Arb. et Frut. Brit., Vol. IV, p. 2079. Although of no great girth, a yew at Whittinghame in East Lothian is remarkable for its wide, low crown of drooping branches. It is portrayed in Elwes and Henry, Trees of Great Britain, Vol. 1 (1906), pl. 36.
A peculiar mystery is attached to the poisonous quality the yew is known to possess, owing to its uncertain and apparently capricious effects. One may go into parks where yews are standing, and see them eaten off by cattle up to the grazing line as other trees are, and yet no case of poisoning heard of; on the other hand, deaths of horses, cattle, and calves turned into fresh fields where they were able to get at yew bushes have occurred so often as to leave no doubt that the yew is poisonous. It appears as if the poison acts only on certain states of the stomach. In my opinion it is more virulent when the stomach is empty, perhaps only then. It also appears that semi-dried twigs and foliage are more dangerous than green ones, and it has been surmised that the male tree is more poisonous than the female. The poison does not appear to be of an acrid or irritant nature, but brings about death rather by interference with the heart’s action. Neither the Canadian nor the Himalayan yew is known to be poisonous. The red fleshy cup that surrounds the seeds is frequently eaten by children without ill effects, but the seeds themselves contain the alkaloid known as taxine that is found in the leaves, and may be the principle that has caused so many fatalities.
Yew timber possesses remarkable strength and durability, and was once highly valued in this country, especially for indoor use (furniture, etc.); it is also very resistant to decay from wet out-of-doors.
The yew bears clipping exceptionally well, and on that account makes excellent evergreen hedges. It is also the best, frequently the only tree used for topiary work, i.e., training and clipping into formal and fantastic shapes. The most remarkable examples in this country are at Levens Castle, in Westmorland (Cumbria). William Barron’s Yew Garden at Elvaston Castle near Derby, planted for the 4th Earl of Harrington in the middle of the last century, is portrayed in Gard. Chron., Vol. 9 (1891), fig. 103. Some of the topiary work and yew specimens are preserved in the Elvaston Castle Country Park. There are topiary features in many other gardens open to the public, of which those at Packwood House (National Trust) and Compton Wynyates, both in Warwickshire, are well known. For the history of the former, see G. S. Thomas, The Gardens of the National Trust (1979), p. 192. The Levens trees were planted in 1692, and have been annually clipped ever since – a remarkable testimony to the adaptability and vitality of the yew. Hedges and topiary yews are clipped in August or September, but if drastic cutting is necessary, as when a hedge has become overgrown, or a tree is to be shaped, this should be carried out in May.
The tree is an extremely hardy one, and is adapted to almost any soil, but like most trees is best suited on a good loam. It is one of the best evergreens for calcareous soils. Common yew is mostly raised from seed which, collected when ripe in autumn, should be kept a year before sowing, mixed with sand or soil and turned occasionally. Named varieties are easily raised from cuttings of small shoots placed under a cloche in late July or August.
Yew hedges and topiary may be severely damaged by attacks of the aphid known as Yew Scale. The honeydew exuded by the insects nurtures a sooty mould, which is usually the first sign of an attack. The pest can be checked by regular spraying with a systemic insecticide.
There is now a great number of varieties of yew in cultivation, mostly of seedling origin, and the most notable are described below. The most comprehensive account in English is to be found in: den Ouden and Boom, Manual of Cultivated Conifers (1965). Still of interest is: Vicary Gibbs, ‘Taxaceae at Aldenham and Kew’, Journ. R.H.S., Vol. 51 (1926), pp. 189-210 (other species of Taxus are also treated in this article).
cv. ‘Adpressa’. – A very striking and handsome form that would be considered a distinct species if its origin were not known. It is a wide-spreading shrub (female) of dense habit, with leaves only 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 in. long, 1⁄10 in. or slightly more wide, abruptly pointed at the apex. It was found, either in 1828 or 1838, as a seedling in a bed of hawthorn at the nurseries of F. and J. Dickson at Chester, who slowly built up a stock, about half-a-dozen of which were inadvertently sold to a representative of the Chelsea nurseryman Knight by a member of the staff who was unaware of their true value and charged the price of ordinary yew. Francis Dickson, who was away at the time, wrote to Knight demanding their return but was met with a blank refusal. It was Knight who named this yew T. adpressa, later going over to ‘T. tardiva’. But Francis Dickson called it T. brevifolia and stuck to this name, which properly belongs to the Pacific yew.
‘Adpressa’ eventually makes a large shrub or even a small tree. Planted in 1840, it is 30 × 31⁄2 ft (1974) at Orton Hall, Hunts (cf. 15 ft high in 1931). Similar variations have since been recorded in seed-beds and in the wild.
cv. ‘Adpressa Stricta’. – Of more ascending habit than ‘Adpressa’. Put into commerce by Standish and Co. of Ascot and given a First Class Certificate when exhibited by them in 1886. Female.
cv. ‘Adpressa Variegata’. – Leaves at first silvery yellow, later margined with yellow. Female (T. adpressa variegata in Journ. R.H.S., Vol. 11 (1889), p. cx; T. baccata adpressa aureo-variegata Beissn.). Raised (or distributed) by the Handsworth nursery of Fisher and Holmes. First Class Certificate 1889. Sometimes known as ‘Adpressa Aurea’.
cv. ‘Amersfoort’. – An even more remarkable departure from the norm than ‘Adpressa’, the leaves being oblong or oblong-elliptic, up to 3⁄8 in. long and about half as wide, roundish and mucronate at the apex, radially arranged. Of stiff, upright habit, slow-growing. The original plant grew at the Psychiatric Hospital at Amersfoort in the Netherlands, and propagations from it were at first identified as belonging to a species of Podocarpus (Baileya, Vol. 9 (1961), p. 133 and fig. 46).
cv. ‘Argentea Minor’ (‘Dwarf White’). – A very slow-growing dwarf with drooping branchlets, its leaves with a narrow white edge.
f. aurea Pilger – Yews with leaves tinted or edged with yellow have been known since the 17th century, but the first commercial distribution recorded in the literature appears to have been the T. baccata foliis variegatis of Loddiges nursery, described by Loudon as having the leaves variegated with whitish yellow and being seldom more than a large shrub. This may be the yew known as the ‘Old Gold-striped’, which was male and of low, spreading habit. But there is also record of a form which, except in leaf-colour, resembled the common yew.
The old golden yews seem to have attracted little attention until the energetic William Barron started to collect plants for his employer the 4th Earl of Harrington, buying every one he could lay his hands on, regardless of size, for he was a pioneer of tree-transplanting and an example of the machine he invented and marketed for this purpose is still in existence. By 1849 there were some one thousand golden yews at Elvaston Castle. Among them was a male tree bought from Lee of Hammersmith for forty guineas. This sported a female branch, and from its fruits Barron raised several improved golden yews.
cv. ‘Barronii Foemina’. – Of dense pyramidal habit. Leaves variegated with bright golden yellow. Raised by William Barron around 1860 from the monoecious golden yew mentioned above. He also distributed a male clone of the same origin.
cv. ‘Cheshuntensis’. – A form intermediate, and probably a hybrid, between the common and Irish yews; it has a wider habit than the latter, but the leaves are similarly arranged all round the twig. Raised by Messrs Paul of Cheshunt.
cv. ‘Decora’. – As now grown in Britain a dwarf, pendulously branched form with dark green, glossy leaves about 1⁄2 in. long (H. J. Welch, Dwarf Conifers, fig. 242). This is not the T. b. var. decora of Hornibrook.
cv. ‘Dovastoniana’. West Felton Yew. – One of the most distinct and handsome forms. It is a short-trunked tree, sometimes a shrub, with numerous stems, its branches widely spreading, the branchlets pendulous. Leaves very dark green.
The original tree was planted at West Felton near Shrewsbury about 1776 by John Dovaston, who bought it from a cobbler for sixpence, hoping that the fibrous roots of the yew would fix the soil at the mouth of a well he had just dug. ‘They did so; and … the yew grew into a tree of the most extraordinary and striking beauty … . Though a male tree, it has one entire branch self-productive, and exuberantly profuse in female berries …’ (J. F. M. Dovaston, the planter’s son, in a letter to Loudon printed in Arb. Frut. Brit. (1838), Vol. IV, p. 2082). In 1836 the tree was 56 ft in spread and about 5 ft in girth at 5 ft. Its present dimensions are 56 × 12 ft, with a clear bole of 6-7 ft (1979). For its portrait in 1900 see Gard. Chron., Vol. 27 (1900), p. 147. The tree was named T. baccata Dovastoniana by Leighton in Fl. Shrops. (1841), p. 497.
cv. ‘Dovastonii Aurea’. – Of similar habit to the preceding but with golden, yellow branchlets and yellow-margined leaves. Raised in France and named in 1868.
cv. ‘Elvastonensis’. Leaves golden at first, becoming bright orange in winter. Male. A branch-sport from a common yew found by William Barron at Elvaston Castle and distributed by him after he set up his own nursery.
cv. ‘Elegantissima’. – The yew originally so named was raised in the Wetley Rocks nursery of a Mr Fox, in the 1840s. ‘He had an Irish and a Golden Yew growing near each other; the former got fertilised by pollen of the latter, and a ‘wee striped plant’ made its appearance between them. This was offered to me for seven guineas, when only a few inches high, which offer I declined. It then fell into the hands of Messrs Fisher and Holmes, who made the most of it, and it obtained a wide circulation’ (William Barron, Gard. Chron. 1868, p. 921). This ‘Elegantissima’ was a male of erect, uniform growth and a straw-coloured variegation. It is probably now lost to cultivation, but many improved golden yews were raised from it by backcrossing it with the Irish yew. See further under ‘Fastigiata Aurea’.
What is now grown as ‘Elegantissima’ is a vigorous female clone of dense, ascending habit, with leaves golden at first, later straw-coloured. It becomes green if grown in shade. It is possibly the ‘Elegantissima Foemina’ put out by Smith of Worcester, but they also had an ‘Elegantissima Superba’ and there is also mention in the literature of ‘Elegantissima Nova’.
cv. ‘Ericoides’. – A slow-growing form with erect or spreading stems and narrow heath-like leaves standing out around the shoot. A plant at Kew, acquired about 1876, was 71⁄2 ft high and 21 ft in circumference of spread in 1926 (V. Gibbs, op. cit., p. 202). It is now rare.
cv. ‘Fastigiata’. Irish Yew. – Of columnar habit, with numerous spires, its leaves standing out all round the twig, dark, dull green. Two young plants were originally found by a Mr Willis on a rock in the mountain above Florence Court in Co. Fermanagh called Carricknamaddow or ‘The Rock of the Dog’. One, which the finder planted in his own garden, died in 1865. The second he took to his landlord the Earl of Eniskillen at Florence Court, and it is from this plant that all the true Irish yews are descended by vegetative propagation. Cuttings were given to Lee of Hammersmith at an unrecorded date but probably around the turn of the century, since the Irish yew was available at a low price from both British and continental nurseries by 1838, under the name ‘T. hibernica’.
The Irish yew has attained a height of 40 to 55 ft in the western parts of the British Isles, and there the individual spires are long and slender; elsewhere it is squatter, with a broader top, and grows slowly (A. F. Mitchell, op. cit., p. 286).
Being propagated by cuttings, the Irish yew is female, like the original parent. When its flowers are fertilised by pollen of a normal yew, as would normally be the case, the seedlings usually take after the male parent. But branches bearing male flowers have been observed on several occasions on the Irish yew, and the fastigiate seedlings that are occasionally produced are possibly the result of self-fertilisation. The name T. baccata erecta has been applied to more than one of such seedlings. The only one to rival the Irish yew is ‘Overeynderi’, raised at Boskoop around 1860. This was introduced to Britain some forty years later, but has never become established here. It is not naturally of so fastigiate habit as the Irish yew and makes a broad bush unless pruned. ‘Fastigiata Robusta’, of columnar habit, was found in a Swiss garden and put into commerce in 1950. Female. The leaves are lighter green than in the Irish yew (Van Ouden and Boom, Man. Cult. Conif. (1965), pp. 398, 402).
cv. ‘Fastigiata Aurea’. Golden Irish Yew. – This is really a collective name for plants more or less agreeing with the Irish yew in habit but with golden or gold-variegated foliage. Dallimore remarked: ‘It is a very conspicuous variety, and varies somewhat in colour according to the nursery from which it is procured.’ (Holly, Yew and Box (1908), p. 201). Such plants were raised by at least two nurserymen – Waterer of Knap Hill and F. and J. Dickson of Chester – by raising seedlings from the Irish yew, planted near ‘Elegantissima’ (q.v.), which was itself a hybrid of the Irish yew.
cv. ‘Fastigiata Aureomarginata’. – A selection of the golden Irish yew, raised at the Handsworth Nursery around 1880. Leaves with a margin of bright yellow, becoming duller later. Male.
cv. ‘Fructu-luteo’ (‘Lutea’). – Differing from the common yew only in the orange-red arils of its fruits. This very striking form appears to have originated in Ireland. It was first noted about 1817 on the demesne of the Bishop of Kildare at Glasnevin near Dublin, but the immediate parent of the cultivated stock was apparently a tree at Clontarf Castle, mentioned by Mackay in his Flora Hibernica (1836).
cv. ‘Glauca’. – The plant cultivated under this name, or as ‘Blue Jack’, is of bushy habit, eventually 20 ft or so high and as much in width, with leaves of a dark glossy green, bluish beneath. Male (?T. baccata glauca Carr.).
cv. ‘Nana’. – Three cultivate have been distributed as T. b. nana. According to Hornibrook, it belongs properly to the dwarf otherwise known as T. b. Foxii, which has very short dark green leaves and grows slowly to a height of about 3 ft, making a laxly branched, pyramidal bush. The T. b. var. nana of previous editions was renamed T. b. parvula by Vicary Gibbs; this is a semi-procumbent form, perhaps no longer in commerce. The third “nana” was raised and named by William Paul and was renamed T. b. Paulina by Gibbs. This is of compact, dome-shaped or conical habit, to about 4 ft high.
cv. ‘Neidpathensis’. – Differing from the type only in its steeply ascending branches and short, rather dense leafage. It originated at Neidpath Castle, Peebles, but appears to have been first distributed by continental nurseries.
cv. ‘Nutans’. – A slow-growing, flat-topped, irregularly branched bush to about 3 ft high and wide; branches nodding at the tips. Leaves radially arranged, less than 1⁄2 in. long, some reduced to appressed scales. Raised in Belgium and first distributed by a Dutch nursery in 1910 (den Ouden and Boom, Man. Cult. Conif., p. 410).
cv. ‘Pumila Aurea’. – A very dwarf and compact bush with golden leaves retaining their colour throughout the winter. Grown and named by Vicary Gibbs at Aldenham, but of unrecorded origin. It was propagated and probably most of the stock was dispersed at the sale of the Aldenham collection in 1932. Mr Welch believes that two old plants in the National Pinetum at Bedgebury belong to this clone (Dwarf Conifers, p. 290).
cv. ‘Pygmaea’. – The dwarfest of the yews, eventually about 15 in. high and wide, of dense habit, with radially arranged leaves less than 1⁄2 in. long. (den Ouden and Boom, op. cit., p. 403). It has the same history as ‘Nutans’.
cv. ‘Repandens’. – A semi-prostrate shrub forming an undulating mass eventually 2 or 3 ft high and 10 to 15 ft across. Female. Distributed by Parsons of Flushing, New York, before 1887. An excellent ground cover.
cv. ‘Semperaurea’. – A large shrub, wider than high, with ascending branches and short branchlets. Leaves golden, holding their colour through the winter. Of unrecorded origin, before 1900. A plant at Kew was 9 ft high and 15 ft wide when thirty years planted.
cv. ‘Standishii’. – Resembling the Irish yew in habit but of much smaller stature and slower growth. Leaves crowded, rich golden yellow. The best golden yew for small gardens and with the finest colouring of all. Described in 1908 but distributed earlier by Standish and Co. of Ascot.
cv. ‘Washingtonii’. – A large shrub of spreading habit. Leaves golden at first, later yellowish green. Female. Distributed by Smith of Worcester in 1874 as a variety of T. canadensis, and probably raised in N. America. A plant at Kew, acquired in 1876, was 12 ft high and 69 ft in circumference of spread in 1926.