One of only 3 conifers native to the United Kingdom (along with Scots pine and juniper), yew is a familiar feature of our gardens and parks. But how much do you really know about it, and could there be a place for it in your garden? In this article, you will find everything you need to know about this ancient and fascinating plant.
What is a yew tree?
Yew, or taxus, is a genus of long-lived evergreen coniferous trees in the Taxaceae family, thought to have grown throughout the northern hemisphere for millions of years.
Within the genus, there are 7 yew species; of these, Taxus baccata is the most well-known. Native to an area spanning the coast of Norway down to the mountains of North Africa (including the UK), this dark-leaved, handsome tree is also known by the names English yew, European yew and common yew.
Despite a natural preference for well-drained chalky soil, Taxus baccata is tolerant of most conditions and will grow almost anywhere (including full sun or shade) except for in waterlogged ground. It is also as hardy as it gets, able to withstand temperatures down to -20°C and beyond.
How and where to spot a yew tree
Yew (and from now on, this refers to the species Taxus baccata) has dark green, needle-like leaves arranged along each twig in two opposite rows. Its bark is reddish brown and peels off in large flakes.
Left to its own devices, yew will form a medium to large tree with a broad, rounded crown. However, you are equally likely to encounter it as a clipped garden feature. A relatively slow mature growth rate (no need for constant trimming), even texture, dense habit, and exceptional disease resistance have made it the top choice for topiary and formal hedging across many generations of gardeners.
5 must-know yew tree facts
1. Yew is one of the oldest trees in Europe
Read any list of the most ancient trees in Europe, and you will find yews jostling with olives for the top spot, depending on which age estimate is being used. Due to their unusual growth habit (the original trunk tends to die out and be replaced with new shoots), yews are frustratingly difficult to date.
The most famous is the Fortingall yew in the Scottish Highlands, which is between 2000 and 5000 years old. Another is the Llangernyw yew in North Wales, which estimates put anywhere from 1500 to 5000 years of age.
2. Yew trees can be male or female
Yew trees are dioecious, meaning they have male and female flowers on separate plants. Both appear from March to April and can be found nestled at the base of leaves. Male flowers are produced in clusters along the underside of twigs and are 3-4 millimetres across, rounded and white-yellow. They release clouds of pollen from late winter to early spring.
Female flowers tend to be only at the ends and are 1-2 millimetres across. Their appearance is green, scaly and bud-like when young, becoming brown and acorn-like later on. From September to October, they give way to red berries (or, to be botanically correct, single-seeded fleshy cones known as arils). These are usually bright red, though some cultivars can be yellow.
3. Yew tree wood has been prized for millennia
A long history of humans utilising the strength of yew tree wood is demonstrated by the world’s oldest surviving wooden artefact – a 450,000-year-old yew spear discovered in Clacton-on-Sea in Essex.
Later on, the mediaeval English army was known to use yew tree wood longbows, which they imported from the huge yew forests of Spain and Italy. At the time, a law even stated that every cask of wine shipped from Europe must be accompanied by 6 bow staves. Now that’s multitasking!
4. Yew is probably quicker to grow than you think
While the slow-growing reputation of yew is true in maturity, young plants are considerably more vigorous – putting on a metre in under 3 years. For hedging purposes, this is ideal; swift to get going, then requiring only an annual trim thereafter.
Whilst faster-growing alternatives may offer quick initial results, they often create more work in the long term. Instead, perhaps consider our large, rootballed yew hedge plants. Bigger and more mature than usual hedging plants, and with their root ball intact, you can plant these at any time of year (as opposed to the usual ‘winter-only’ bare root plants). This makes them an effective option for anyone looking for a more ‘instant’ result.
5. The rule for pruning yew is… there are no rules
Unlike most conifers, yew will forgive almost any kind of pruning and tends to grow back regardless of what is done to it.
Overgrown yew tree? Coppice it down to the ground in winter for a fresh start.
Does the shape need drastically altering? Go for it! Yew will regrow from practically any cut (again, best done in winter).
Unsure of the best time to trim your hedges or topiary? Whenever you like! Yew will take clipping at any time of year except in freezing conditions.
See our useful guide to yew hedge pruning for more information.
Are yew trees poisonous?
All parts of yew trees are poisonous when ingested, apart from the fleshy part of the berry. Animals usually avoid yew instinctively, save for the thrush who – living dangerously – either pecks around the poisonous seed or swallows the berry whole, allowing the seed to pass through its system without harm.
Unfortunately, children are less aware of its dangers, and for them, eating just a few leaves can cause severe illness or even fatality. If you suspect yew tree poisoning, phone 999 immediately or head straight to the nearest accident and emergency department. It can be helpful to take a sample of the plant with you.
Yew tree mythology
With its exceptionally long life span, sombre appearance and toxic qualities, the yew tree has been mythologised through the ages.
- For the Celts, to whom it was known as ‘iw’ (giving it the distinction of being the only British tree to have retained its Celtic name), it was associated with death.
- For Druids, it was a symbol of immortality.
- In Norse mythology, it represented longevity.
Yew tree links to Christianity
More recently, yew trees have become linked with Christianity and can be found growing in almost every churchyard in the UK.
There are many hypotheses for this latter connection, the subject one of contentious debate. One theory is that it was a custom brought by the Normans, who used yew trees as a northern substitute for the cypress tree. According to this theory, the large girth of the trees (which would appear to contradict its timelines) is due to them being not one but several trees planted together.
Another theory is that, along with holly and ivy (both equally associated with Christianity), yew trees were one of the only native evergreens and therefore chosen to buoy mood through the bleakness of winter.
Others are convinced that the yew trees predate the buildings and that the Christian church appropriated the worship sites of earlier religions and cults.
Perhaps the most imaginative of all is the theory that yew trees absorb unpleasant odours and were planted on the west side of graveyards to negate the warming effects of the afternoon sun on the graves’ inhabitants.
Given the challenges of dating old yew trees, we are unlikely to ever know which, if any, of these theories are true, though it certainly makes for intriguing speculation.
Whether you are drawn to the folklore and mystery of yew or simply its superior performance in the garden, a very good case can be made for it in most cultivated situations. A neat, trimmed hedge; an abstract, freeform shape; a tongue-in-cheek, clipped animal; a wise, old tree. Whatever your needs, you can be fairly confident yew will comply and thrive with minimal fuss.