Yew Tree Folklore – The Tree of Immortality
Yew tree folklore is full of stories from the ancient world, and many cultures around the globe have held the Yew as a sacred tree. It is one of Ireland’s 5 magical trees, and in Spain people used to hang branches from their balconies to protect their houses from lightning.
Yew tree folklore also appears in Shakespeare, as Macbeth used “slips of yew, silvered in the moon’s eclipse” as his choice of poison.
In a churchyard in Pembrokeshire, The Bleeding Yews of Nevern have sap dripping down the trunks. This is not uncommon, but these trees have blood red sap and one of the many legends associated with the Nevern Yews is that they are bleeding in sympathy with Jesus after his death on the cross.
The Fortingall Yew in Glen Lyon, Scotland, is believed to be somewhere between 2000 to 9000 years old and the oldest Yew in the British isles.
The Yew is known as The Tree of Immortality because its ability to regenerate. Many Yews will create a hollow space that fills up with foliage over many years to create a rich compost that the tree can feed from. 100’s of years later, the tree can send an ‘aerial root’ into the hollow that will travel down through the tree and into the ground to form roots and eventually become a new trunk. A single tree can repeat this process many times so are often hard to age because the hollow area makes the rings harder to read and the same roots may have supported many trunks from the same bore for 1000’s of years.
If Yew trees have plenty of light and growing with a mix of male and female trees they will produce seeds and pollinate. If these conditions are not available, Yews can produce clones of themselves by sending branches into the ground (aerial roots) to become new trees. When this happens it can create rings of Yew trees.
Fossils show that the Yew tree has survived as a species for 250 million years. If you compare that to the 6 million years that human type species have been around that makes them pretty ancient.
An individual Yew tree can live for 100’s and even 1000’s of years and there are many examples of ancient Yews in the UK (you can find their locations on here https://www.ancient-yew.org/map).
The Yew tree is highly poisonous and lethal and archers used to coat the tips of their arrows in crushed seeds to make sure they caused death. Every part of the tree from the bark, sap and leaves to the berries and seeds are highly poisonous. The only part that is not, is the flesh of the fruit. The toxic active ingredient is now used to produce a chemotherapy drug called ‘Taxotere’ which is used in the fight against lung, breast and prostrate cancer. It is produced in the UK from Yew hedge clippings.
On hot days, the Yew can give off hallucinogenic vapours and standing in the fine golden pollen is said to shift consciousness.
Many ancient Yews can be found in churchyards and some believe this is because the Romans held christian worship under the Yews to make it more acceptable to the Pagans and that churches were eventually built at these places. Other sources say that Yews were planted in church yards as they thrive on corpses.
Many Yew trees were cut down to keep up with the demand for longbows in the 14th and 15th centuries.
Glennie Kindred’s Walking with Trees: http://www.glenniekindred.co.uk/booksprints/walkingwithtrees.html#body
Trees for Life