Take a tour of English churchyards and you’ll notice that most have a particular type of tree – the yew. You may wonder why – is the tree holy, perhaps? Well, no. There is a pretty ordinary explanation. Yew trees are poisonous. Back in the day when cattle used to graze on land in and around a village, they had to be stopped from eating yew leaves. Churchyards were protected by walls and so were the obvious place to plant yew trees.
Its proximity to graves led to the yew being associated with the dead. It was believed to protect their soul from evil spirits as they journeyed to the next life. It was also believed to have magical properties and any would be magician would have a staff made from yew wood.
But the tree also had many practical uses. Its wood is strong and flexible and it was used to make the near legendary English longbows which defeated the French at Agincourt. In fact, it’s been used in weaponry for a very long time. The oldest wooden tool so far discovered is a spear made from yew some 50,000 years ago!
Yew can also be a medicine. The berries have long been used as a laxative and a diuretic and, more recently, alkaloids taken from yews have been used to treat cancer. However, don’t ever be tempted to try eating any part of a yew tree – as I said before, it’s poisonous. Even a few small leaves can kill.
Yews are very long-lived. In fact, the oldest trees in Britain are yews. There’s one in Scotland, Fortingall Yew, believed to be somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 years old! In fact, there are lots of churchyards up and down the country with trees older than the medieval churches themselves.
If you’d like to know more about the yew, or any other native British trees, then have a look at the Woodland Trust website. It’ll help you discover our forests, identify our trees and learn all about these fascinating living legends. And, after that, you might like to browse our Nature quizzes. We have dozens which are all free to play, including ones devoted to trees and wild flowers. Well worth a look!