Yew Tree ~ December 24 2015

Yule be Yew Tree~

Heather Luna, Herbalist                                                         


Taxaceae Family

English Yew (Taxus baccata), Irish Yew (Taxus baccata fastigiata)

Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifoila), Japanese Yew (Taxus cuspidate)




Ruling the winter solstice is the tree of death. Of course, death is a name given for the much broader concept of eternity and immortality, as with death comes rebirth. The yew is known as the tree of resurrection. Fittingly, it so happens to be an evergreen. The poisonous property in yew, taxol, is used in both ancient Chinese Medicine and modern pharmacology for the treatment of cancerous tumors. It can also bring about death.  Yew rules the darkness of winter for it is when the days are short that yew offers guidance into the great mystery of the night.

Yew trees teach us of immortality, and transformation. Recognized as a tree of the afterlife and drawing its power from the underworld. Hundreds of churchyards in England contain yew trees that are older than the buildings themselves. Almost every cemetery in the western world houses a yew, as it is said that the yew spreads its roots into the underworld. Planting yew upon a grave was commonly practiced as means to carry the spirit into the otherworld, the eternal.  Yew trees were planted on the graves of plague victims to protect and purify the dead. Graveyard fences make yews inaccessible to cows, which would likely die upon eating the leaves, making a logical reason for the preservation of these rare beings in such locations.

Ancient yews become hollow, making it impossible to date them by the counting of tree rings. Recent dating techniques have revealed that the yew may have the longest lifespan of all trees, with specimens estimating 9000 years old. These hollow giants become small chapels and houses of worship in many parts of the world.


Associated with the holy days of Samhain and the Winter Solstice, yews remain green when much of the world is seasonally grey. In the ancient Druid language of trees, known as the Ogham, yew’s lettering is I (Idho). It is the 5th vowel and the last letter in the Ogham Alphabet. Yew is the culmination of wisdom in all of the sacred trees. It represents eternity, rebirth, protection and resurrection. The tree ogham Idho is the link to spiritual guidance through your ancestors, guides and guardians into the Otherworld. The Yew is here to remind us that there are other levels of existence beyond this material plane. By understanding the illusionary nature of the life we have created for ourselves, we can live our lives more consciously. Often death is fraught with a sense of fear and loss, but the Yew can teach us to see death as a form of transformation and that it is never final.

Yew has the ability to branch out forming a ring of what appears to be several trees, albeit is just one sacred circle of a tree. Yew became the National emblem of everlasting life for Ireland and England. The tree being poison is perhaps a link to its otherworldly associations. Anything that can kill you certainly has power over your physical being. There are, of course, medicinal applications of yew within folk healing that are to be used with great caution and respect. Primarily this tree is used for its wood and its magic: wands, talismans, sacred tools (which includes weapons; tools of war; causes of death). For centuries yew branches were carried at funerals. In Ireland it was said that the yew was ‘the coffin of the vine’, as wine barrels were made of yew staves. It is one of the five sacred trees of Ireland representing the five Chieftain tribes.

The species name Taxus comes from the Greek word for bow: taxon. Yew is the traditional wood used to make the English long bow. This tree was not only associated with honoring ancestors, but possibly helping you to become one by bringing you to your death in battle.  Arrows were even tipped with a poison made from the yew bark. 

Yew is a slow-growing tree. Because of this it has tight-grained wood that is tough and resilient, used for making spears, spikes, staves, hunting bows and longbows. The wood takes a high polish and anything crafted from it is incredibly durable. The entire tree is poisonous- wood, bark, seed, and needles. The only part that isn’t is the fleshy fruit-like covering of the seeds, called the aril. These red berries are eatable, so long as you remove or spit out the seeds. It’s poison properties are one of the hallmark reasons yew is known as the Death Tree. The world's oldest surviving wooden artifact is a yew spear head that was found in the United Kingdom, estimated about 450,000 years old.

As you might imagine, yew wood is very hard, dense and heavy. Over three hundred rings have been counted in a branch that is only four inches across. In England, under the rule of King Henry, most of the yews had been wiped out in the production of bows and weapons. This caused England to seek out yew wood from other realms. It was ordered that every ship that came to port in England had to carry 80 staves of yew as docking payment. This incredible burden weighed ships down so much that merchants were no longer able to transport the same volume of supplies and goods, leading to a bottle neck in National trade.  The entire course of trade among merchant ships was changed by the value of a tree.

Today one of the other more common places you may find yew trees in Europe is in the form of a hedge. It is the supreme hedge plant: the most elegant barrier against noise, wind and the common gaze; always ready to be coaxed into whatever shape you desire; always rich in color; and a perfect setting for other plants.  Unlike most evergreens the yew produces a bright red fleshy covered seed, rather than a cone. Yew is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers grow on separate trees. These are visible in early spring. Male flowers are insignificant; white-yellow globe-like structures. Female flowers are bud-like, scaly, and green when young but become brown and resemble an acorn with age.


The Pacific yew was used by North American Natives very much like the English yew was used in Europe. Pacific Northwest tribes people traded the wood as a valuable raw material.  The Haida called it ‘bow plant’. Various implements were fashioned from Pacific yew, including bows, wedges, clubs, paddles, harpoon shafts, sewing needles, spears, awls, knives, boxes, dowels, pegs, drum frames, digging sticks, dishes, spoons, canoe- spreaders, fire tongs, and combs. The Haida collected the arils for food that was consumed sparingly, as too many would make women sterile. Likewise the tree was used in this way for abortions. Dried yew needles were sometimes smoked in ceremonial kinnikinnick blends.

Yews have widely been recognized as toxic to both livestock and humans. In smaller doses, yew has been used as a minor folk medicine in some parts of its range. Examples of the medicinal uses of yews include the induction of menstruation for the purpose of abortion, and the treatment of arthritis, kidney disease, scurvy, tuberculosis, and other ailments. However, in recent years, yews have become famous for their use in the treatment of several deadly cancers.

It is the Pacific Yew that is mostly widely known for its use in Cancer Therapy. Drug names Taxol, Paclitaxol, and Onxal are a compound derived from the Pacific Yew tree bark. The drug is an anti-cancer ("antineoplastic" or "cytotoxic") chemotherapy drug. Taxol is a plant alkaloid, and an "antimicrotubule agent."

Taxol is used for the treatment of breast, ovarian, lung, bladder, prostate, melanoma, esophageal, as well as other types of solid tumor cancers. It has also been used in Kaposi's sarcoma. It wasn’t until 1977 at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York that taxol was discovered to interfere with cell division by binding to the tubulin protein, a key factor in mitosis. This discovery became quickly recognized as a valuable resource in cancer treatments. Other cancer drugs prevented tubulin from assembling into microtubules, whereas taxol bound to assembled microtubules and blocked them from disassembling.  In either case, it is the process of halting cell division that inhibits tumor growth.

The application of yew in ancient Chinese medicine for cancerous tumors was given as a decoction of the leaves in carefully prescribed doses. Although the science was not yet understood in this context the medicine was well known. There was a yet another booming demand for yew trees in the 80’s and 90’s. This time it was for the production of cancer drugs. Today these same drugs are synthesized sparing the trees, but the wild yews of the pacific forests have not forgotten their loss of numbers, and yews across the globe are now endangered. These ancient trees can never be replaced in our life time.   

The Druids believed that the yew could transcend time, and was used as a doorway between this life and the next. As a sacred tree of immortality, the yew reminds us of possibility. A tree whose possible life outspans that of all other trees as well as much of human history to date, the yew is symbolic of the sum of all wisdom. Just as the yew contains the lessons of all the other trees, so, it is said, do we contain all the experiences, knowledge, and understanding of our ancestors.  As the culmination of the spiritual journey, the ultimate lesson of the yew is the transcendence of death.

 Good Yule to Yew!



-Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast; Pojar and Mackinnon

-Celtic Tree Mysteries; Steve Blamires

-Woodland Trust articles of the UK; drug info

-White Dragon Organization; tree ogham articles online

-The Wisdom of Tress; Jane Gifford