Conifers Poisonous Plants

Death and Longevity: The Mysterious Yew

Honoured readers and thrill-seekers, welcome to the latest chapter in our Halloween series dedicated to poisonous plants. In this terrifying exploration, let’s dive, or rather climb, into the dark world of the Yew. This deadly tree embodies mystery and tradition like no other.

Beautiful, Delicious… Deadly

A little-known conifer found in Europe, Asia and Africa, the common yew (Taxus baccata) can reach 25 meters (80 feet) in height, and is often found scattered throughout deciduous forests. Yew forests are very rare and protected.

Photo: Emgaol

In North America, it’s a smaller cousin measuring just 2 meters (6 feet) that can be found in forests and flowerbeds: the Canada yew (Taxus canadensis). Several species of yew exist and, despite minor differences, they all share their poisonous attribute. It’s best to be wary of the entire yew family.

Photo: saunternature

Don’t be fooled by its tranquil appearance. Its dark branches and bright red fruit may attract the carefree hiker, but… yew contains a deadly toxin called taxin. It is present in all parts of the plant except the flesh of the red aril that surrounds its seeds. This fruit is sweet and edible, but beware! The seed at its center is lethal: a small amount of taxin can cause serious heart problems, convulsions and, in the most extreme cases, death. These interesting-tasting berries are the perfect trap for the epicurean in a hurry.

Photo: Sannse

A Rich and Obscure History

Yew has always been a source of fascination, fear… and death. In prehistoric times, yew was used to coat hunters’ arrows.

In Antiquity, it was linked to mythology and funeral rituals. For Celtic druids, this sacred tree created a link between the living and the dead. They used them in their religious practices and planted them in cemeteries, adding to the tree’s sinister aura. Even today, very old specimens can be found in cemeteries, tortured by the countless dead they have protected with their branches.

Yew’s robust orange wood never rots, and has a certain flexibility. It has been used throughout history to make bows, musical instruments and artistic woodwork. However, it takes courage to dare work with this wood: historical accounts tell of gardeners who could not cut yew wood for more than thirty minutes without suffering terrible headaches.

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If mature wood is a commodity for the prudent carpenter, it’s a different story for the shepherd. For fear of poisoning their herds, young yew trees were uprooted to protect livestock and horses, which are highly sensitive to taxin.

Today, yew groves are rare and protected, and reforestation plans to preserve the species are underway in several countries. Yew is an essential link in the food chain, as many birds feast on its fruit. It’s also a magnificent tree, and its wood has many virtues… Just be careful not to confuse it with another conifer if you’re into herbal teas.

Leg of the Brave, Yew-Hunted

This is a very special recipe. It’s all about the hunting story: there’s no way guests are going to know where your roast really came from (I’m talking about the grocery store here).

Tell your guests the epic story of your hunting trip in the wild bush on a full-moon night, with the howling of wolves in the distance. Tell how you finally managed to catch that meat you put on the table. That terrible wild chicken! That giant pig! This murderous ox! It was hunted thanks to your yew-poisoned arrow!

Season your meat with rosemary needles. But hush, tell them it’s yew, and that only the boldest will dare to taste this meal for the brave!
To complete the picture, stick the yew-poisoned arrow you used to “chase” the beast into your piece of meat. And voila: the roast of the brave candy hunters!

The Mystery of Longevity

The yew has another peculiar and mysterious characteristic. Its life is as long as the legends surrounding it are numerous. Some specimens can live as long as 1,000 or 2,000 years, depending on the author, making it one of Europe’s oldest plants.

Even so, its slow growth allows the yew to grow to a reasonable size. For an individual estimated to be 1,000 years old, the circumference of its trunk would reach 10 metres (30 feet), which means that to go around it, five or six humans would have to hold hands. That’s big and impressive, but for an ancestor who’s been growing for a millennium, it’s still small…

This one is estimated to be 1,600 years old, but legend has it that he’s 5,000 years old, phew! I’d hate to be the one to count this tree’s growth rings when it dies to see who’s right!

Photo : Roi.dagobert

This longevity may have contributed to its mystical image, as the ancients believed the yew to be the guardian of the forest’s secrets, a silent witness to past events.

Halloween isn’t just about fright! It’s also about mystery, the unreal and legends…

Giver of Death, Savior of Lives

Outre les usages en tant que poison, sachez que la baguette magique de Voldemort dans Harry Potter était faite d’if. Pour ceux qui ne sont pas adeptes de la série, j’imagine que vous avez deviné à son nom que ce n’est pas un gentil!

In fact, it was Voldemort himself who wrote our Halloween poem of the day:

I used to have a nose,

I used to have hair.

O yew wand, how I loved you!

But today I must make this terrible confession…

My divided soul did not deprive me of a nose,

It’s your closeness, my tender twig, that has so disfigured me!

Yeah… if you don’t mind, I’ll take care of next weeks poem!

With the advent of modern science, several discoveries have enabled us to see yew in a new light. One of its toxic molecules is used in the treatment of certain cancers. Isolating it was a long and complex process, not to mention the fact that to obtain 2 kg of taxol, 12,000 trees had to be sacrificed!

Fortunately, it is now possible to manufacture the molecule in the laboratory and treat patients. Of course, it’s all a question of dosage and combination with other products. Please do NOT make yourself a yew tea to cure yourself of cancer! Let your health specialists take care of you.

Photo: Julia Filirovska

A Warning in the Wild

Finally, the yew, with its dark beauty and hidden danger, is a powerful reminder that nature can be both magnificent and fearsome. In this Halloween season, when shadows lengthen and legends come to life, let’s not forget to respect the power of nature. Yew reminds us that behind every bewitching beauty sometimes lies a deadly danger.

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

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