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Taxus baccata, yew


Rich in myths, legends and folklore. The berries are a good example of why advising a child to always chew its food thoroughly is not universally sound.


Taxus baccata, yew

Taxus baccata, yew


Meaning of the Name

Possibly from the Greek ‘taxon’, ‘bow’ as a result of the use of its wood to make bows. Persian has ‘tachš’ for ‘bow’. A mummy from the Chalcolithic age, around 4000BC, was found with an unfinished bow made of yew so its use for this purpose goes back much further than the English long bowmen usually associated with it. 
From Latin ‘bacca’, ‘berry’

Common Names and Synonyms

yew, Irish yew, English yew

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

Taxus baccata, yew

Taxus baccata, yew

All parts, except the flesh of the berries, contain taxin(e) a complex of alkaloids which is rapidly absorbed. Also present are ephedrine, a cyanogenic glycoside (taxiphyllin) and a volatile oil.

Where poisoning does occur, in animals or humans, there may be no symptoms and death may follow within a few hours of ingestion. If symptoms do occur, they include trembling, staggering, coldness, weak pulse and collapse.

Yew is one of the plants where the poison is not destroyed when the plant dies. Thus, branches removed from a yew by high winds or pruning will retain their poison.

Though the berries are harmless, the seed within is highly toxic. Unbroken it will pass through the body without being digested but if the seed is chewed poisoning can occur with as few as three berries.

Taxus baccata, yew

Taxus baccata, yew


Most incidents with yew relate to animals though it was eaten, in the 1980s, by four prisoners as a means of suicide. Three of the four succeeded.

The interactive CD-ROM produced by St Thomas' and Kew Gardens cites a number of case reports all involving ingestion of leaves or bark. In one case it is noted that a nineteen month old child accidentally ingested some plant material. Intact seeds were found in his stools confirming that these are not digested. The child recovered.

Farmers have reported cases of poisoning in cattle when dead yew clippings have been dumped on grazing land. The assumption is that someone clipped a yew hedge in the garden, left the clippings to wither thinking that would render them safe before 'recycling' them by dumping them on farmland.

A visitor to the Alnwick Garden Poison Garden talked about his elderly neighbour who, being no longer able to manage it himself, had a group of young people in to tidy up his garden. They trimmed his yews and threw the clippings over the fence into the field at the bottom of the garden where three heifers died after eating the cuttings.

Folklore and Facts

Some years ago, it was found that the taxol found in yew could be used to produce chemotherapy treatments for breast and other cancers. The drug produced in this way is called paclitaxel. (Until someone was kind enough to correct me, I was one of the many people who thought tamoxifen was produced from yew. It is not. Tamoxifen is a synthetic drug.) For some time, large gardens made a point of keeping their yew prunings and passing these to companies to extract the taxol and produce these drugs. This was an expensive process and produced only limited amounts of the drug. Since then, however, it has been discovered that taxol is produced from a fungus that lives in the yew. Other fungi have also been found that are able to be used to produce paclitaxel. With some, artificially brewing is possible and, once that process is scaled up, it should reduce the cost and increase the availability of breast cancer treatments.

Though toxic to most animals, deer do graze on yew and gardeners are advised to avoid growing yew if there is a possibility of deer getting into the garden because it is a favourite food. That said, the list of plants which deer will browse is a very long one and there are reports of poisoning incidents so it may be large amounts are toxic to deer.

The idea that yew was grown in churchyards for making longbows is a myth. Bows were made, primarily, from the trunk of the tree so the tree was destroyed. In addition, yew grown in Britain is too brittle so the famous English longbow was made from wood imported from Europe.

The roots of the yew are very fine and will grow through the eyes of the dead to prevent them seeing their way back to the world of the living.

Sources - Galen

Galen was a Greek who worked as a doctor in Rome.  He lived from about 130AD to about 215AD. He spent much time dissecting animals to try and understand the workings of the body and was the first to conclude that the kidneys are where urine is formed rather than the bladder. He also discovered the heart valves and found that the arteries carry blood around the body and not air as was thought. Many of his other discoveries were, however, erroneous and he fell out of favour during the Renaissance.
That we know so much of Galen’s writings is due to their translation into Arabic, during the 9th century, by Hunayn ibn Ishaq. Many of the English herbals refer to Galen to support their descriptions of the efficacy of plant remedies.

Yew is very long-lived and, in many cases, the yew tree in the churchyard predates the church so, the church was built round a yew tree because the pagan belief about the roots was so deep-seated.

Its longevity leads to its featuring in tales of reincarnation. If two yews are intertwined it is believed that they grew after yew stakes were driven into the chests of lovers whose relationship appalled their community.

Many place names have their origins in particular trees. York is a corruption of an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘the place where yew grows’.

John Gerard quotes Galen and others as saying that the yew is very venomous taken internally and that sleeping under a Yew can cause sickness and oftentimes death. He then dismisses these stories by saying that ‘when I was young and went to school, divers of my school fellows and likewise myself did eat our fills of the berries of this tree and hath not only slept under the shadow thereof, but among the branches also, without hurt at all, and that not one time, but many times’.

Thomas Johnson resolves the difference of opinion between the foreign ancient sources and Gerard by asserting that the yew in England is not poisonous but, in other countries, it is highly venomous.


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Introduction to the A to Z section
Abrus precatorius, rosary pea
Aconitum lycoctonum, wolfsbane
Aconitum napellus, monkshood
Actaea racemosa, black cohosh
Actaea spicata, baneberry
Aesculus hippocastanum, horse chestnut
Amanita muscaria, fly agaric
Aquilegia atrata, columbine
Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort
Artemisia absinthium, wormwood
Arum italicum, Italian cuckoopint
Arum maculatum, cuckoopint
Aspergillus fumigatus
Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade
Brugmansia suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Bryonia dioica, bryony
Buxus sempervirens, common box
Camellia sinensis, tea
Cannabis sativa, marijuana
Catha edulis, khat
Chelidonium majus, greater celandine
Cimicifuga racemosa, black cohosh
Claviceps purpurea, ergot
Clematis vitalba, old man's beard
Colchicum autumnale, naked ladies
Conium maculatum, poison hemlock
Convallaria majalis, lily of the valley
Cynoglossum officinale, hound’s tongue
Daphne mezereon, spurge olive
Datura stramonium, thorn apple, jimsonweed
Datura suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Delphinium, larkspur
Digitalis spp., foxglove
Dracunculus vulgaris, dragon arum
Echium vulgare, viper’s bugloss
Eranthis hyemalis, winter aconite
Erythroxylum coca, cocaine
Euonymus europaeus, spindle tree
Euphorbia x martinii, red spurge
Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia
Fritillaria spp., fritillary
Galanthus nivalis, snowdrop
Hedera helix, common ivy
Helleborus spp., hellebore
Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed
Hyacinthoides non-scripta, bluebell
Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane
Ilex aquifolium, holly
Jacobaea vulgaris, ragwort
Juniperus communis, common juniper
Laburnum anagyroides, laburnum
Lactuca serriola, prickly lettuce
Leucojum aestivum, snowflake
Lithospermum officinale, gromwell
Lolium temulentum, darnel
Malus 'John Downie', crab apple
Mandragora officinarum, mandrake
Mercurialis perennis, dog’s mercury
Narcissus, daffodil
Nepeta faassenii, catmint
Nerium oleander, oleander
Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco
Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort
Papaver somniferum, opium poppy
Pastinaca sativa, parsnip
Polygonatum odoratum, angular Solomon's seal
Prunus laurocerasus, cherry laurel
Pulsatilla vulgaris, pasque flower
Ranunculus acris, meadow buttercup
Rheum x hybridum, rhubarb
Rhododendron spp.
Rhus radicans, poison ivy
Ricinus communis, castor oil plant
Rosmarinus officinalis, rosemary
Rumex obtusifolius, broad-leaved dock
Ruta graveolens, rue
Salix alba, white willow
Salvia divinorum, sage
Scutellaria laterifolia, Virginian skullcap
Senecio jacobaea, ragwort
Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade
Solanum melongena, aubergine
Strychnos nux-vomica, poison nut
Symphoricarpos albus, snowberry
Symphytum spp., comfrey
Taxus baccata, yew
Toxicodendron radicans, poison ivy
Thevetia peruviana, yellow oleander
Urtica dioica, stinging nettle
Veratrum album, white hellebore
Verbascum olympicum, Greek mullein
Vinca major, greater periwinkle
Viscum album, mistletoe
Vitex agnus-castus, chaste tree