You cannot have failed to notice Yew trees as they are most often
found near to churches, often forming sombre avenues to the porch
or standing sentinel beside ancient graves.
There are two main varieties, the Common/English Yew Taxus
baccata which is of a more open and spreading habit than the Irish
Yew Fastigata which is broadly and densely vase-shaped. Unless
of a golden variety, most yews have dark green, needle-like leaves
though new foliage stays a brighter green for the first two or three
years. Each tree is either male or female with the male shedding
clouds of pollen and the female producing bright red fleshy arils
that contain a single seed. All parts of the tree (except the red flesh
which birds like) are extremely poisonous.
Also widely planted for hedging and topiary, yews are long-lived and can grow to immense size and age with many being around 1,000 years old. (The Fortingall Yew in Scotland, by modern estimation is between 2 – 3,000 years). Just think about that for a moment - thousands of years! As I said, they are often found in and around churches and this is because the tree was originally worshipped by Druids who planted them near to sites of burial, so that when Christianity replaced the old religion, new places of worship were constructed over the old, with Yews left to help with transition and continuity. (It is reported that more than two hundred such trees today pre-date the churchyards in which they stand).
In Christianity the Yew came to symbolise resurrection, its greenery used to decorate churches at Easter and on Palm Sunday, while sprigs were put into the shrouds of the dead to protect and restrain their spirits.
Because of ancient beliefs that linked the Yew to immortality, and because it retained its leaves in Winter, it was also revered as a tree of light in the sense that it emphasizes the continuation of life. So, along with other evergreens, it became traditional to dress the trees with glittering objects to attract the sun back into the coming year.
Yew wood is very hard and enduring and is used in furniture-making, wood-turning and for musical instruments where the exquisite grain can be shown to advantage. It was also famously used for the English longbow.
The connections of the tree (Taxus) to poison ‘toxin’ makes it fairly obvious that self-administration is out of the question, that being so, a wand or staff of Yew is said to be a great healing implement ‘able to transform illness to health and sadness to joy’.
Old Yew, which graspest at the stones
That name the under-lying dead,
Thy fibres net the dreamless head,
Thy roots are wrapt about the bones.