The Canada Yew or Taxus canadensis is a low, shrubby species that grows from Manitoba east to our Canadian Maritimes. The genus name Taxus is the Latin word for ‘yew tree.’ Because of its poisonous seeds, the Romans thought of the yew as the shrubbery the dead might encounter in Roman hell, probably something like: the Elysian Fields cluttered with pizza stands. Yew therefore had symbolic clout at Roman funerals. And yew still darkly spreads its foreboding verdure in many a cemetery of the Western World. Some of the oldest human-planted yew trees on earth adorn ancient British burial grounds, such as the Much Marcle yew in a churchyard near Ledbury in Herfordshire, shown below.
Yew trees do indeed attain great old age; some British authorities claim to have dated living yew wood at 1,000 years old. Here’s a web bit written by The Ancient Yew Group, a British protective society: “After the Norman Conquest of England, a spate of church building led to the planting of many churchyard yews. Some still thrive today, although over 900 years old.
The yew trees were usually planted in a deliberate manner: one beside the path leading from the funeral gateway of the churchyard to the main door of the church, and the other beside the path leading to the lesser doorway. The remains of Anglo-Saxon churches also suggest that the early English planted yews in a circle around the church, which was usually built upon a central mound…The yew’s reputation for long life is due to the unique way in which the tree grows. Its branches grow down into the ground to form new stems, which then rise up around the old central growth as separate but linked trunks. After a time, they cannot be distinguished from the original tree. So the yew has always been a symbol of death and rebirth, the new that springs out of the old.”
The Count of Monte Cristo Chained in Yew Castle
The French word for yew is if, yew wood is bois d’if and the famous Château d’If is ‘Yew Castle’ built in 1524 on the small rocky isle of If (pictured below), in the Mediterranean Sea just off the great port of Marseilles, France. Once the craggy islet’s most prominent plants were low, scraggly yew shrubs. Then a French state prison was built on Île d’If ‘Yew Island.’ The Château d’If was made famous as a locale by Alexandre Dumas in his 1844 novel The Count of Monte Cristo.
More Lore of Yew Words
Some Greek commentators in philological studies from the Hellenistic era thought that their Greek word taxos ‘yew’ was from Latin taxus. That seems unlikely. The derivation was the other way around, the more usual path: a Roman word was borrowed from the Greeks. The Roman encyclopedia writer Pliny has taxicum venenum ‘yew poison’ which looks mighty like a miswriting of toxicon Greek ‘poison,’ ‘arrow poison.’ Taxus is possibly related to the Greek noun taxis ‘arrangement,’ perhaps so named from the pleasing symmetry of yew needles in their tidy rows. Compare an adjective used by Theophrastos, a Greek writer about plants, who described one wee specimen as taxiphyllos ‘with leaves set neatly in rows’(phyllon, Greek ‘leaf’). Observe the yew branchlet below.
Another possible Greek source is the common classical Greek word for bow, toxon. What if some early Greek bows were made from yew wood? A natural question then to archaeologist experts on early Greek weapons, particularly bows and arrows, would be: Do we, in museums, possess any extant ancient Greek bows made from yew wood? Yes!
Yew gave the spelling heebie-jeebies to the Anglo-Saxons, so that we find Old English forms like eow, iow, iw, then in Middle English ew and ewe. Cognates of yew are widespread in the Indo-European languages and include Old Scandinavian yr, German Eibe, Welsh yw, Old Irish ibar, Gaelic iubhar, Old Slavic iva, Gaulish ivos and hence Modern French if.
Western Yew, Taxus brevifolia (Botanical Latin ‘with short needles’) is the only native Canadian species attaining tree size in British Columbia , and even the brevifolia is usually a shrub. Archers like yew wood for the pliant bows that can be made from it. The five-thousand-year-old Ice Man found in the Alps had, beside his leathery remains, a little axe handle made of yew, and a bow of yew wood.
Yews Are Poisonous
Taxine is a deadly alkaloid found in all species of yew, in the bark, leaves, in yew's red berries, technically called drupes, and in the seeds within the scarlet drupes. It is quickly absorbed once in the intestines. Survival after ingestion of quantities of yew seeds is uncommon. Children should be taught to avoid all parts of the plant. Do not burn yew clippings to ward off mosquitos and bugs as some dangerously foolish garden books suggest. Taxine can be carried in the smoke. Yew also kills livestock. From a Poison Plant List website comes this summary: “Taxine: symptoms of ingestion include nausea and vomiting, increased salivation, stomach ache, diarrhea, sleepiness, shortage of breath, trembling, spasms, and malfunction of the cardiovascular system which leads to collapse and death.” Pliny, the Roman encyclopedist, wrote of poison ingested from kitchen utensils made of yew wood.
Yews Are Beneficial
Taxol, derived from Western Yew, may be of benefit as part of chemotherapeutic regimens in certain cancer treatments. Yew wood from some species does find some use in the furniture industry. The hard red wood is resistant to damage caused by insects and fungi.
I hope Yew enjoyed this entry. Wood you like more later? I'll try, but it will take a lot of hard work and tile.
© 2012 William Gordon Casselman
Any comments, questions, additional word lore or book orders?
Please email me at email@example.com