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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 7th March 2012

I mentioned, yesterday, that BBC1’s ‘Countryfile’ programme (link good until 11th march) cited a piece of folklore specific to the Taxus baccata, yew, growing in the churchyard of St Mary’s Church, Painswick in Gloucestershire. The story says that there are 99 yew trees in the churchyard because if ever a hundredth is planted the devil pulls it out.

I’ll return to the topic of area specific folklore in a moment but I wanted to comment on two things that the presenter, Matt Baker, said about the yew trees in St Mary’s churchyard.

Introducing the folklore about the devil and the hundredth tree he said ‘Legend has it St Mary’s has 99 of them [yew trees]’. I wouldn’t have thought that legend has anything to do with it. Either St Mary’s has 99 yew trees or it doesn’t. I know the BBC is frequently accused of dumbing down but, surely, it still has at least one person on the staff who can count to 99.

Taxus baccata, yew

Taxus baccata, yew

I’m inclined to think that, if there were 99 yew trees he would have said so and that ‘Legend has it’ means there aren’t 99 yew trees but saying so takes the edge off the story. It is often the case with folklore and suspicious beliefs of all sorts that they don’t stand up to even the simplest examination of the facts.

The second thing I want to take issue with is that he said yew is planted in churchyards to keep livestock out. That’s a piece of folklore that is widely repeated but, again, it doesn’t stand up when you look at the facts. Though yew is deadly poisonous to cattle and sheep deer seem to be unaffected by it. There is some contention about that with some reports of wild animals being poisoned by yew but others suggesting that deer favour yew foliage and will seek it out. There was an article a few years ago in a garden magazine published in New England that suggested gardeners avoid planting yew because deer will be attracted to it and cause damage.

Though there may be some equivocation about the appeal of yew to deer there is another point that, for me, dispels the notion of using yew as a deterrent. Yew is extremely slow growing and, therefore, you would need some other method of keeping livestock out of the churchyard while you waited a generation or two for the yew to get big enough to take on that role.

My belief is that yew had pagan associations with preventing the dead from walking and, as happened with many pagan beliefs, Christianity adopted this as a way of bringing pagans to it. It is said that yew roots form a shallow net that the dead cannot penetrate or that the fine roots grow through the eyes of the dead so they cannot see their way back to the land of the living.

One of the best examples of the way folklore changes from place to place concerns the Ilex aquifolium, holly. In Ireland, this plant is said to provide a home for fairies and, thus, should be grown in a quiet part of the garden so that the fairies are undisturbed. In England, witches are deterred by the sight of a holly and, so, it should be planted close to the door.

Sometimes, the folklore stays the same but the plant changes. So, in Scotland, the tree that deters witches and must be present in the garden is Sorbus aucuparia, the rowan tree.