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THE YEW TREE and church grounds

Updated on September 30, 2015

Winter scene


Notes from a Lancashire Country Man

If ever a tree was steeped in tradition and folklore it is the yew tree whose historical roots pre-date Christianity. There are over 500 church yards in the U.K. where the tree is recorded, some of which are amazingly old. One such example often quoted when ancient yews are mentioned is at Fortinghall village church in Perthshire Scotland.

Records reveal that in 1769 the tree was already hollow and this hollow was large enough to let the congregation to pass through it. However, today it is only a fraction of its former self. Why the fascination with the yew in church yards? Some are though to have been there before the churches were actually built, thus being associated with Pagan burial grounds.

Indeed before the structures of stone were constructed the trees themselves acted as the church, people would gather beneath the mighty boughs. Yews were revered because they had the ability to regenerate themselves and there are records of almost lifeless trees rejuvenating themselves, and begin sprouting again and putting on new growth, later this phenomena was associated with the resurrection.

It was once a widespread occurrence to have a body buried along with sprays of yew which would abide with the deceased to aid them to pass over into the other world. Trees that grow as old as yew trees do {some are thought to be over 3,000 years old} and having the bonus of being evergreen could not possibly evade the folklore, religious connections and immortality.

Some of these trees have felt the blast of a thousand winters. The yew seems indifferent to winter , nor does it give the impression that it looks forward to summer treating them both with the same indifference. The tree has a presence which is mysterious and somewhat awesome when the tree matures, then the trunks are often sculptured by nature into weird and wonderful shapes.

The trees are coniferous but it has broken with tradition of such trees by having foliage whose "needles" are broad and flat rather than linear and sharp. The conventional cones associated with coniferous trees such as pine and larch are not encountered on this species for the yew produces berry like fruits known as arils which are extremely modified cones.

Coniferl cones and the fruit of yew.

The conventional cones of pine and below those of the European larch.
The conventional cones of pine and below those of the European larch. | Source
The modified cones of the Yew tree are called arils.
The modified cones of the Yew tree are called arils. | Source

Basic Biology of the Yew Tree.

The trunk of the yew is of a reddish-brown colour with frequently peeling bark associated with mature trees. As previously stated the trunks are often sculptured by nature into some fantastic shapes. they are capable of attaining the height of 20M but half this size is more the norm in the U.K..

The seedlings of the yew are extremely shade tolerant and thrive where other species could not. The produces tiny flower clusters that botanists term as strobili, are either male or female the sexes being borne on different trees, making them what botanist term as dioecious,{ from two Greek words di-indicating two and oikia house or dwelling}, referring to the fact that two trees are needed for pollination to occur, one with female flowers and one with male.

The female flowers are but a simple bud, green, tiny, and difficult to locate without the aid of a magnifying glass. Male flowers are simple structures comprising of anthers and little else, and grow beneath the shoots. During spring pollen from the male flowers produce a pale yellow "cloud" which is carried by the wind to the receptive female flowers. Once pollination has occurred  the female flowers are succeeded by small conspicuous fruits {the modified cones} known as arils { from the Latin arillis from Medieval Latin arilli-raisins Pips of grapes} that contain a single very poisonous seed enclosed within the somewhat fleshy red coloured skin. The fruit is open at the top to expose the green seed. The species name of baccata means berry like and is an apt description of the arils produced.

The foliage consists of broad, flattened "needles", dark green, up to 4cm long ending with a pointed tip. They have two pale bands below, they are mainly spread out in two rows on either side of the shoot.

Two thousand trees are recorded by the TREE REGISTER OF THE BRITISH ISLES, 32 of them are classed as CHAMPION trees native to Britain and Ireland. below is a sample of those listed as Champion trees that tenant church yards and other prominent land marks.

Belvoire Castle Liecestershire England.

Dallan Park Milnthorpe-Cumbria England.

Llanfaredd {Buith Wells} Parish Church Powys Wales.

Norbury Parish Church Shropshire England.

Tandridge Parish Church Surrey England.

Lutterlstoan Church Co Dublin Ireland.

Payhensbury Parish Church Devon England.

Ulcombe Parish Church Kent England.

Yews are more numerous in the southern counties of England becoming scarcer as you move north with the exception of those planted in church yards. They are especially numerous on the chalk downs of southern England, and in particular, is one of note the ancient yew woodland of Kingsley Vale in west Sussex . Click on the highlighted Kingsley Vale to read more about this woodland by fellow hubber Nicole Collier Owen.

Yew Needles

The foliage is composed of broad, flat needle like structures
The foliage is composed of broad, flat needle like structures | Source

English longbow

English longbows were more often than not made from yew wood.
English longbows were more often than not made from yew wood.

In Medieval times the wood of the yew tree was utilised for making the longbow the most deadly distance weapon of its time.The English longbow was produced from yew although other trees such as the ash tree and elm tree were also used when yew was not available. They were traditionally made by drying the wood of the yew for two years or so then gradually shaping the wood. The whole complex process could take four years.The strings were made from hemp or flax.

Much of our historical knowledge concerning the longbow comes from the well preserved bows that were recovered from the wreck of the "Mary Rose" which sank in Portsmouth in1545. One hundred and thirty seven of these excellent  samples were recovered.


Longbows were important weapons of their time.
Longbows were important weapons of their time.

Seed dispersal

The yew has been used in medicinal preparations for centuries but these are better left to the knowledge and wisdom of the professional herbalists,for all parts of the yew are poisonous with the exception of the fleshy part of the red aril. However, the single seed nestling within are deadly poisonous to many grazing animals and of course to humans. They passed through the digestive tract of many birds in tact, seemingly without any detriment to the bird. This is an important method of seed dispersal for the tree.


Some of the yews alive in England today were alive and well when Jesus walked in the Holy land. I find this to be an amazing fact and puts the 80-100 years of individual human existence into perspective. It is a sad fact  that many yew trees have been lost through our ignorance. Many were felled when they became hollow mistakenly thought to have been in distress.However, yew trees can survive happily for hundreds of years in this condition.

I believe this wonderful tree  needs to be treated with a great deal of reverence and respect for they have been here much longer than us and will still be alive and well when most of us will have been forgotten. " YEW TREE-I HONOUR THEE"


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      amm nice to meet you. You are correct to point out the danger to horses I covered this in the srticle by saying they are dangerous to many grazing animals. Thank you for your visit it is appreciated. Best wishes to you.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I agree that the yew is a beautiful plant, but I've been doing research and I have learned that the yew can, if eaten, can kill a horse in 15-30 minutes from when it was eaten. If you own or work at a barn, keep yew trees away from the horses!

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Sally's Trove, isn't it awful when you have cared for something with love and devotion to see it destroyed. Thank you so m8uch for your visit and for leaving your appreciated comments. Best wishes to you.

    • Sally's Trove profile image


      7 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      What a wonderful article about one of my favorite plants. Yews are common landscape shrubs here in the northeast USA, where they are usually shaped into simple geometric forms. Only once have I seen a yew in its tree form here, and I was enchanted with its rugged bark and twisting shapes. A few years ago I found a tiny yew seedling, planted it, and began to sculpt it into a tree. I managed to get about three feet of growth on it, and then one summer while I was on vacation, weeds grew up around the trunk, the landscaper attacked the weeds with an electric weed wacker thus cutting a perfect ring around the trunk about 1/4-inch deep, and the little tree expired. I think I must one day travel to England to see these magnificent trees. Thanks for a super read!

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      daravuthz-thank you for your visit and a happy new year to you.

      darski, thank you for your amazing comments. Happy new year to you and yours,love and best wishes.

      Gus The Redneck, thank Gus for your visit and for your appreciated comments. Happy new year and best wishes.

      cwarden, thank you for your visit and for leaving your kind comments, Best wishes and a Happy new year to you.

    • cwarden profile image


      7 years ago from USA

      What a fascinating tree. Another wonderful hub full of beautiful pictures! Thanks and Happy New Year!

    • GusTheRedneck profile image

      Gustave Kilthau 

      7 years ago from USA

      D.A.L. - The first time I bumped into a yew it was when I went off to forestry school. They were more like short bushes than trees, but they were handsome. I remember being particularly pleased with the look of those cplike, waxy red berries. They stuck in my memory as well as on the yew branches.

      Gus :-)))

    • Darlene Sabella profile image

      Darlene Sabella 

      7 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

      D.A.L. I really enjoyed reading this hub and my first knowledge of such a tree. Our world is such an amazing place and each plant and tree and flower are here for all of us for many reasons. If we all lived in the tribe today, you would be called the medicine man or the healer. The wise one, Thank you my dear friend. I wish you a Happy New year, and I hope your holidays were special. rate up, love & peace darski

    • daravuthz profile image


      7 years ago from Cambodia

      Hi D.A.L., Happy New Year 2011 :)


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