Yew

Common yew
Taxus baccata

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Common Yew belongs to the genus Taxus and is a member of the Yew family (Taxaceae).

Common yew (Taxus baccata) is an evergreen tree growing to 25m and flowering March to April.

Lifespan: probably the longest-lived species in northern Europe. Difficult to age with accuracy but may reach well over 1000 years.

 

Characteristics

Bark is reddish-brown and peeling. Leaves are small (10–25mm), needle-like, linear with a pointed tip, in two spreading rows along twigs. Dark green above, two paler bands below.

Common yew is dioecious, which means that male and female flowers grow on separate individual trees. Male flowers are globes of white-yellow anthers which shed pollen in early Spring. Female flowers are bud-like, scaly, green on emerging; becoming brown and resembling tiny acorns. A fleshy red ‘aril’ or outer growth enfolds the developing brown-black seed; the whole becoming a sweet, succulent fruit. Common yew is wind pollinated.

Common yew can reproduce vegetatively; mature trees produce new ones as the main branches reach the ground and take root.

Yew tree
Yew leaves

Distribution

Native to the UK, across Europe and north Africa

Common on well-drained calcareous soils in southern England and often found as an understorey component of beech woodland, where it forms dense cover, and on open chalk downs.

Widely planted in churchyards for centuries and popular in formal gardens for topiary. There are many cultivated varieties with different foliage structure and colour.

Human value

Yew timber is rich orange-brown in colour, close-grained and exceptionally strong and durable; allowing old trees to remain standing even with hollow trunks.

In the past its wood was used in turnery and to make long bows and tool handles. Today it can be used to make an attractive veneer.

Yew is valued for its dense foliage which is ideal for creating shaped hedging and topiary designs. It can withstand being clipped for hundreds of years.

The bark, foliage and seeds of the yew are toxic. The red flesh of the berry surrounding the seed is not.

Yew is an important medicinal plant. Anti-cancer compounds are harvested from many species of yew, including the UK’s native common yew.

Yew flowers
Yew

Wildlife value

Common yew is an important understorey component of lowland beech and yew woodland which is a priority habitat under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

Many rare and characteristic species are associated with this habitat including box, red helleborine, coralroot bitter-cress and a wide variety of orchids including white, red, violet and broad-leaved helleborine and birds nest orchid.

Yew is a very primitive form of conifer, bearing fleshy fruits rather than cones. The fruit is enjoyed by birds such as the blackbird, mistle thrush, song thrush and fieldfare, and dormice will also make special excursions to reach them.

Many birds also value its shelter for nesting; the UK’s smallest birds – the goldcrest and firecrest – will nest in broadleaf woodland with a good understorey of common yew.

Management

Common yew is one of the most shade-tolerant of all UK native trees. It is not grown commercially due to its habit of growing extremely slowly, as little as 1cm in 20 years.

It will grow on any well-drained soil, but prefers calcareous soils. The tree can tolerate atmospheric pollution and exposure.

Seed can be collected from female trees in November; the soft flesh removed by crushing and the seed pre-treated and stored. Seed should be sewn in March 16 months later. Trees can also be grown from semi-hardwood cuttings.

Common yew foliage is poisonous to most domestic animals.

May be susceptible to one or more of the Phytophthora fungus-like pathogens.

Yew topiary

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Photographs © Forestry Commission