I'm very fortunate to live near Kingly Vale, one of the most impressive yew forests in Europe with a grove of ancient yews dated to at least 2,000 years old. It's one of my favourite places. I don't get there as often as I'd like to, but I'm determined to get there again soon. It has a sacred and peaceful energy and there are many strange tales associated with the place.
Majestic and long-lived, the yew tree is one of Britain’s few native evergreens and the oldest of our native trees. The yew has a red-brown bark that peels off easily and can reach heights of 80 feet (24 meters) and more. Yews grow in a unique way; their branches grow down and take root in the ground to form new trunks. These then join the main trunk which gives yews their huge fluted girths. The yew continues to grow even with a completely hollow trunk. This has given the yew its reputation for immortality and made it a symbol of death and rebirth.
The dark green leaves, or needles are arranged in two opposite rows in spirals along the twigs and can remain on the tree for 8 years before falling. Unlike other conifers, yew doesn't grow cones, but often has a cone-like growth caused by insects laying eggs in the branches, rather like oak galls. Yew is one of the first trees to flower in Spring with male and female flowers growing on separate trees.
The bright red fleshy berry like fruit are popular with bird; all parts of the yew are poisonous to humans and should not be consumed.
The main medical use for yew is as a source for the alkaloid taxol, used in conventional medicine to treat some cancers. Initially it was discovered in the bark and non-sustainable harvesting caused the yew to become endangered. It has since been found to be present in the needles which means taxol can be harvested without killing the tree itself.
Yew wood is very hard, yet quite elastic, and it was once highly prized for making longbows for archers in the Middle Ages. Yew bows are said to have been used to kill three English Kings: William Rufus, King Harold and Richard Coeur de Lion.
The venerable yew is often found growing in churchyards all over Europe where it is thought to protect and purify the spirits of the dead, many were there long before the churches were built on the ancient sacred sites. In Brittany it is said that the graveyard yew extends a root to the mouth of every corpse buried there.
The oldest known living yew tree in Britain is in a churchyard in Fortingall Perthshire Scotland, it is estimated to be around 3000 years old and there are many legends surrounding it. Several yews are mentioned in the Doomsday book of 1086 and one of the oldest weapons found is a crude yew spear from the old stone age.