Druids were the pagan priests of Ancient Briton, some 2,000 years ago. Druid means “knower of the oak” and for them, the oak, the apple and the yew were sacred trees. They observed the festival of Alban Arthen or Yule from which our term Yuletide is derived. Yule covered the time of the winter solstice and was from the 19th-31st December. Each family would bring a log to add to a community fire and the fire would be kept flickering for the 12 days, in order to persuade the sun to move and the days to become longer.
Druids believed in re-incarnation and the great age of yews made them a symbol of everlasting life. They preferred their sacred trees in groves and there is a collection of yew trees called “Druids Grove” at Norbury Park, Dorking, Surrey which are estimated to be 3,000 years old. Yew trees can be difficult to age. For the first 400-500 years it grows normally and can be dated by annual rings. After that its heartwood begins to rot and hollows out, aerial roots can then give rise to new growth inside in this hollow which fuse with the inside of the original tree. Also, outer limbs can root near to the trunk when they touch the ground and increase its girth. At 900 years a yew would be ancient but trees 1,500 years and older are frequent, and an estimated 500 trees across Britain are classed as ancient.
Yew trees are typical of the chalk downs of southern England, where they can dominate woods with little room for other plants because they cast such a deep shade. A similar effect can be seen under the yew trees in Sidmouth Parish Church. Elsewhere, it is an under-storey tree, with its dark green foliage standing out in winter. When woodland was cleared, it was often left as a marker tree at the woodland edge or on boundary banks. It is easy to imagine how generations of humans would walk past a tree then use it as a meeting place.
The best place to see yew trees is in churchyards. Some churchyard yews are older than the buildings, because the church was built on a pre-Christian site. When Pope Gregory dispatched St. Augustine in the 7th Century to convert the pagan Britons, he decreed not to destroy any existing places of worship but convert them to a Christian Church. Iona was a Druid centre before it was a Christian site, and was planted with groves of yew trees. Its name may come from Ioho or Ioha, the Gaelic word for yew tree. Some Anglo Saxon churches were planted with yew trees in a circle around the church and branches cut from them were carried on Palm Sunday and at funerals. The Normans built churches and planted yews because they reminded them of cypress trees. In the 19th Century the tables turned and some believed that a grove of yews was a place to be shunned as a portend of death and fewer were planted.
Yew trees are either male or female and the female tree has fleshy fruits rather than cones, unusual for a conifer. The fruits are readily eaten by birds but they do not digest the seeds as they are poisonous. Only one bird, the rare and shy Hawfinch, is able to eat the seeds with impunity. The scientific name for Yew, is Taxus baccata, and Taxus is Latin for toxic. All parts of the plant are poisonous except the flesh of the fruits. A chemical that could be used in cancer therapy was discovered in the leaves in 1995.
The tallest yew hedge in England is in Cirencester which is 12m tall and 137m long and each year it is cut back by 15cm and the clippings are used to extract this chemical for use in chemotherapy. Apart from hedges, where its dark evergreen foliage is perfect for displaying plants inside its boundary, it has also been used in topiary and there is also an impressive yew maze at Hampton Court.
Pause and look at an old yew in a churchyard on a wet, sunny day. Take in how the dappled light seems to make the beautiful fluted trunk change colour, with hues of red and purple shades adding to the normal brown colour. Splendid!
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