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.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
This sacred tree of the Old World is native to all of Europe, northwest Africa, northern Iran and southwest Asia. It has been around through many of the earth’s climatic changes. Its population in the northern temperate zones was decimated due to its usefulness to man. Due to the high demand for this tree it was gone from Rome and Greece by the time of Christ and from most of Europe by the 17th century.
This tree has provided shelter, tools, weapons, and medicine for centuries. The leaves and bark were often carried in medicine bags. In 1021 Avicenna recorded the use of Yew in his Canon of Medicine for the use as a cardiac remedy. The leaves have been used internally in the treatment of asthma, bronchitis, hiccup, indigestion, rheumatism, and epilepsy. Externally they have been used as a bath for rheumatism. A homeopathic remedy has been created from the berries and young shoots to treat cystitis, eruptions, headaches, heart and kidney problems, and rheumatism. Today Yew is being researched for it’s usefulness in treating cancer. Due to the increased demand we will have to be careful not to exterminate this useful tree.
Great care must be exercised in the use of Yew internally, as every part of the plant is toxic to humans and cattle except the red fleshy fruit that surrounds the seed. Toxic exposure to the alkaloid taxine causes a paralyzing effect on the heart!
Due to the toxicity, the only thing that is edible is that red, fleshy fruit, this is very sweet and gelatinous. Many people like the flavor but do not like the consistency or the stickiness. A suggestion that the bark may be consumed as a tea substitute is ill advised!
The wood of this tree has been used for it durability and resistant to water damage. It has been used for cabinetry, spears, spikes, staves, and small hunting bows. But most famously it became known for making the English Long Bows of the Middle Ages which were noted for being able to fly over 600 yards easily. It had the longest range of any bow in Europe at that time. Also of note was the fact that the arrowheads were often coated with a poison made from the Yew.
This tree is associated with death and rebirth, but most notably with Hecate the Goddess of the Underworld. The tree was often planted in places people expected to be buried, and allowed to grow until that time; it also marked the grave site. Later the Christians adopted this practice and planted them frequently in their cemeteries, they reminded the visitors of eternal life through Christ, but they were also planted to keep the dead souls in their graves until Judgment Day. The ancient Celts made wreaths of Yew to dedicate to Hecate; and in Rome the black bulls that were to be sacrificed to her often wore a wreath of Yew. The wood was often used to make magic wands, and runes.