The Common Yew
The broad spreading Common Yew (Taxus baccata) once composed a large proportion of the great primeval forests that dominated the earth long before the advent of broadleaved trees.
Only a few areas of yew forest survive in Europe, the largest is Reenadinna Wood, in Killarney, Ireland.
Measured in 1769, with a circumference of over fifty-six feet, the Fortingall Yew in Glenlyon, Scotland is believed to be Europe’s oldest tree at around 9,000 years old.
Yews are some of the oldest living trees and were revered in ancient times by Celts and then Druids. Early Christians continued the association with yews, worshiping in the sacred groves and subsequently building their churches on the ancient sites. The yew’s longevity and ability to regenerate symbolised the resurrection of Christ and was used at Easter, on Palm Sunday, and burnt for ash on Ash Wednesday. In 1776, Alexander Hunter wrote;
The best reason that can be given why the Yew was planted in churchyards, is, that branches of it were often carried in proceſsion, on Palm Sunday, instead of the Palm. The following extract from Caxton’s Direction for keeping feasts all the year, is decisive on this custom. In the lecture for Palm Sunday, he says, “Wherefore Holy Chirch this day makyth solemn proceſsyon, in mind of the proceſsyon that Cryst made this day. But for encheson that we have none Olyve that bereth grene leef, algate therefore we take Ewe instede of Palm and Olyve, and beren about in proceſsyon, and so is thys day called Palm Sonday.” As a confirmation of this fact, the Yew-trees in the churchyards of East Kent are at this day called Palms.
The Irish Yew
There is a variety of yew peculiar to Northern Ireland known as the Irish Yew (Taxus baccata Fastigiata. Tree, columnar and tapering to apex, or cylindrical in outline […] [i]), an anomaly discovered by a farmer, George Willis around 1740. He found two strangely fastigiated yew saplings growing in the Cuilcagh Mountains in County Fermanagh which he removed to his garden. He later gave one to the Earl of Enniskillen, who planted it on his estate at Florence Court.
Willis’ yew died in 1865 but Enniskillen’s yew thrived. The yew was commercially propagated in 1820 and widely distributed and all fastigiated yews round the world are descended from the Florence Court yew.
On the estate where I lived in County Armagh, was a significant ancient religious site marked by rows of Irish Yews (the circular, walled estate graveyard occupied the site from the early 1600s). In the garden in front of the house, stood a yellow-leaved yew (similar in colour to the Golden Yew – Taxus baccata Semperaurea) of considerable height and with a single, cylindrical trunk of over twelve feet in circumference and uninterrupted for the first ten or twelve feet in height. The stout horizontal branches, not unlike those of a Scots Pine, were home to a flock of peafowl come nightfall. I adored that tree, but would have gladly put the timber to good use had it blown down!
My yew didn’t enjoy the same notoriety as the Florence Court yew, but several authorities professed it pre-dated the County Fermanagh tree by several thousand years. Apparently the tree was also unique as there are few examples of yews of such appearance approaching its age and none whose foliage was of a yellow colour (the Golden Yew [Taxus baccata Semperaurea] and the Golden Irish Yew [Taxus baccata Fastigiata Aureomarginata] are relatively modern hybrids).
Yew’s aroma is akin to that of the Pinaceae family and its colours can resemble that family’s on occasion too (with the odd streak of purple), but there the similarities end. The Yew is a conifer, thus technically a softwood, however it is anything but a soft wood. The timber is much denser than pine, weighing in the region of 670 kg/m³ (42 lb/ft³) versus 510 kg/m³ (32 lb/ft³) for Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) and 390 kg/m³ (24 lb/ft³) for Yellow Pine (Pinus strobus). By comparison, American Cherry, a very fine furniture timber, weighs on average, 580 kg/m³ (36 lb/ft³) – all weights at 12% M.C.
Yew has also been held in the highest regard by joyners and cabinetmakers in more recent centuries.
Since the use of bows is laid aside amongst us, the propagation of this tree is quite forborne. […] besides the use of the wood for bows […] inlayers, and cabinet-makers […] most gladly employ it […]. It is likewise used for the bodies of lutes, theorboes, bowls, wheels, and pins for pulleys ; yea, for tankards to drink out of. [ii]
Yew is an extremely elastic timber (famed for its use by medieval English archers for their longbows) and it also steam-bends exceptionally well. Predominantly for these attributes, yew was favoured by Windsor chairmakers during the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries for both bent and turned chair components of high status chairs. Such chairs are relatively rare and can command astronomically high prices.
[ii] Silva: or, A discourse of forest-trees, and the propagation of timber in His Majesty’s dominions, as it was delivered in The Royal society, on the 15th of October 1662, by John Evelyn, third edition, volume 1, York, 1801, p.264.