The yew is one of the most fascinating and versatile life forms on Earth, botanically rich and intriguing, and culturally almost without comparison. In history, mythology, religion, folklore, medicine and warfare, this tree bears timeless witness to a deep relationship with mankind.
Yew was the wood chosen to make some of mankind's oldest artefacts: spears, bows and musical instruments. These include items like the prehistoric spear found near Clacton, the 2,000-year-old wooden pipes from Greystones, County Wicklow and, of course, the famous medieval English longbow. In modern medicine, too, yew has proved a boon. Since 1992 taxol/paclitaxel has helped revolutionise the treatment of certain types of cancer.
In botanical terms, yew is a mass of contradictions. It is a conifer which bears scarlet 'berries' with sweet juicy pulp instead of cones. It is highly poisonous in all its parts except the red fruit pulp, and yet both wild and domesticated animals feed upon it. It can live for thousands of years with the potential to renew itself. A new tree from an interior root can grow slowly within the hollow trunk of an ancient yew and centuries later 'take over' the older tree.
When it come to habitat, the yew tree is nothing if not versatile. It can grown on different continents at a wide range of altitudes: from rainy Edinburgh to sultry Istanbul, from Canada to Mexico, Scandinavia to North Africa and Sumatra, Japan and the Himalayas.
Fred Hageneder's fascinating book is the first to cover all aspects of the botany as well as the cultural history and mythology of the genus Taxus. This is the remarkable story of the oldest living things in Europe.
FRED HAGENEDER is Chairman of Friends of the Trees and founder of the Ancient Yew Tree group (http://www.ancient-yew.org/) , aimed to protect and promote yew trees throughout Europe. He has devoted 20 years to collecting wide-ranging material on trees. His website is www.spirit-of-trees.de