We want yew!

The immortal yew by Tony Hall, 2018. Kew Publishing.

Is the yew actually immortal? Certainly, trees can live for many thousands of years – e.g. 4,765 years in the case of another gymnosperm Pinus longaeva, but that’s not actually immortal. So, what is the title of Tony Hall’s book – The Immortal Yew – really getting at? I think it’s the fact that some trees are so iconic and so intimately enmeshed in the history of humanity that their ‘life’ extends far beyond the lifespan of an individual tree (which can be as much as 1500 years in the case of yew…). What gives the yew its longevity therefore is for it to be remembered and talked – or written – about. As long as people continue to do that, it may yet attain something of the ‘immortality’ referred to in the book’s title.

With that as an opener, wherein does yew’s claim to immortality reside? That question is answered in the 30 page section entitled Natural history of the yew – and whose focus is Taxus baccata, the so-called common, or English or European, yew. And what a natural history it is! Yew’s roles extend from life-taking properties (in the form of the longbow – which wasn’t an English innovation for the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, but was effectively and earlier used against the English by the invading Normans at the Battle of Hastings in 1066!), to life-preserving in providing very important anti-cancer drugs such as docetaxel (Taxotere ®)*; from artistic pursuits such as the use of yew in the manufacture of lutes to the creation of furniture and drinking vessels; from its sacred significance to those of a Pagan persuasion to its use as a form of biocontrol to discourage livestock from feeding on sacred ground in Christian churches. All-in-all that chapter is a great overview of the place of yew in society – and is a well-written plants-and-people essay in its own right.

But, the bulk of The Immortal Yew’s 213 pages is a gazeteer of the British Isles and 76 of its most remarkable yew trees [of England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Irish Republic], which include: a 100 feet tunnel of yew at Aberglasney (Wales); the Ankerwcyke yew beneath which the Magna Carta may have been signed in 1215 (and which may be 2,500 years old); the enormous yew hedge on the Bathurst Estate (whose annual clippings are donated to the pharmaceutical industry for the extraction of docetaxel); the bleeding yew at Newport; the Crowhurst yew at Crowhurst in Surrey (not to be confused with the East Sussex Crowhurst yew) which can – allegedly – seat 12 people inside its hollow trunk; the Irish yew (Taxus baccata fastigiata); the Fortingall yew (in Scotland), “reportedly the oldest tree in Europe”; the yew at Goostrey (said to have provided arrows for the English bowmen at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356); the yew that – maybe! – inspired Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland; yews poeticised by English romantic wordsmith William Wordsworth; the pulpit yew which has been converted into a pulpit for open-air sermons; and the Rock Walk yews at Wakehurst, which are reminiscent of the fig trees flowing over the ruins at Ta Prohm in Cambodia…

Although not all of the featured yews have stories associated with the trees themselves, all are notable for illustrating the tremendous variety of forms, etc. that individuals of this species can display.

Summary

This book is unapologetically a joyous celebration of the European/British/common yew tree, and is a pleasure to delve into. In some respects Hall does what Drori did recently for 80 species of trees. Except that The Immortal Yew does it for 76 individual trees of a single species – and thereby proves that every tree has a tale to tell: Let them be heard!

Minor quibble

Just the one. The yew’s aril-encased seeds are described as fruits on p. 11. Since yew is a gymnosperm it does not possess flowers and cannot therefore produce fruits. For more on that point see here, here, and here.


* Although, paclitaxel (marketed as Taxol ®) is arguably the better-known yew-derived anti-cancer drug, it is a product of the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia);  Hall’s book celebrates the common yew (Taxus baccata), from which docetaxel is obtained.