Ancient Yews, Phoenix Yews
How Old Are Our Yew Trees And Why Are They Called Phoenix Trees?
Ancient Yews occupy a central role in the history and soul of the British Isles. They are an enduring element of the landscape, and their position in myth, legend and ceremony stretches back into to the mists of time, before written records began.
Yew is famed for its great longevity. There are many ancient yew trees in Britain that have been calculated to be between 1000-2000 years old, and some have recently been estimated to be around 5,000 years old.
The true age of an ancient yew is impossible to gauge by normal dendrological methods because the Yew has some unusual growth habits. It is one of the few living things on this planet that manages its own ageing process and is also able to regenerate itself. Thia ability makes ancient yews, worthy of the title: Phoenix Yews.
Encountering Ancient Yews: Approach with Respect And Care
Ancient Yews are most often found in churchyards as great spreading trees, watchful and silent, casting their peaceful shade over the centuries. The oldest of them have somehow escaped the interference of man, and inhabiting some quiet corner, continue to grow on as gnarled and ancient forms, their history stretching back beyond known or recorded time. These are the oldest living forms in the Northern hemisphere.
The Yew Tree in Dartington Hall Gardens
Photo of an ancient yew tree in Dartington Hall Gardens by Judith Green
Views About Ancient Yews Are Varied
The debate surrounding the age of Yew trees, and why they grow where they do is fierce. The arguments put forward range from the scientifically cautious and the archaeologically specific, to insights born of dreams, visions, myth and oral tradition.
These are some of the ancient yews causing a lot of interest...
The Compton Dundon Yew
Photo of the yew tree in St Andrews Church, in the village of Compton Dundon, Somerset, England, by marilyn jane
This link takes you to the website of St Andrews Church, where you can find mention of the yew.
It is one of the yews monitored by the Ancient Yew Group. This link takes you to details of it's current status.
Have you encountered an ancient yew?
The Crowhurst Yew
The Ulcombe yew
The Yew at Wilmington, East Sussex
Photo by Jessica Spengler
The Yew tree at Much Marcle Church
A historian's view about ancient yews...
Where Did All The Straight Yew Trees Go?
In England, during the 15th century the long bow was the most important weapon of war. and and a law compelled every man to own a bow and practice archery.
As yew wood was considered the best material for the long bows of the late Middle ages, this law created a demand for yew wood, causing a catastrophic decline in the number of yews trees left growing in England.
As demand outstripped supply, yew wood and yew wood bows were imported from Europe. Such was the demand that yew wood became an official form of currency. Parliament decreed that every ship landing in an English harbour must present at least 4 yew bows per ton of freight .
Hundreds of thousands of bows were imported from the European Continent, which also had to satisfy its own considerable demand for the newly invented long bows. This led to a huge decline of Yew stands in Spain, the Alps, Austria and Bavaria.
There are two theories as to how the ancient yews that survivve today escaped the felling frenzy:
a) It is likely that any remaining trees, both at home and abroad, were not of the quality needed to make the best bows. It is these trees, the less straight and the positively gnarled, that were left, and have since parented the trees we know today.
b) Those trees that still carried strong pagan value to the local community, or were protected by powerful groups within communities remained imune from the axe.
The contribution of Christian parsons to our understanding of ancient yew trees
We owe a huge amount to the country parsons of previous centuries. So much of our knowledge and interest in the natural world stems from the careful observations and ruminations that they recorded whilst taking a break from writing sermons.
Revd. J.G.C. Coplestone is a good example of that lost breed. As the parson of Ofwell parish church in Devon, he was well placed to observe the decline of a great Yew tree that grew within the churchyard.
Both his father and grandfather before him had held the position of Reverend at Offwell, so Copplestones had held the living since at least 1773. All three generations witnessed what seemed to be the final days of a tree beloved and significant to the whole village.
By 1808, the decline was so pronounced that a new Yew saplong was planted nearby as a replacement, and in 1825 the Archdeacon ordered that the church and church yard be improved; the sorry state of the yew no doubt adding to an air of general dilapidation about the place.
J.G.C. Coplestone was deeply concerned that the yew be protected, and went to great lengths to protect the roots of the tree during the structural improvements and earth moving. A large amount of displaced earth ended up being mounded around the base of the tree, and although this is something that today we know to be injurious to many trees, something quite miraculous happened over the next few years.
The yew tree began to recover, and J.G.C. Coplestone recorded its self resurection in notes and a poem. That poem, wtitten in the early part of the 19th century is part of the recorded information about yews that is helping experts today to preserve and protect ancient yews.
The Decayed but Reviving Churchyard Yew..
"Yet thou giv'st hope
Dear venerated tree, when pleas'd I doat
Upon thy recent growth. I hail thee still
An emblem, in thy scath'd and leafless head
Of man's mortality; I hail thee more
As pointing, in thy renovated boughs
And new clad shell, to man's awaited change
From vile to glorious. Thou wast shrunken, dead,
But art alive again."
Photo by martin
Who's Right About Ancient Yews?
Who will you be more inclined to listen to?
Yew Berries Are Tempting But Deadly; Do Not Eat
Photo by dmott
Medicinal Properties of Yew
A Drug for Cancer is made from the green leaves: Yew clippings are collected by two companies for the production of a drug used in cancer treatment. They will supply large sacks for collection, and pay a small sum for each sack. This does not mean that it is suitable for self treatment, as the plant is extremely toxic, causes death, and at present there is no antidote.
By Simon Garbutt. SiGarb 20:02, 4 December 2006 (UTC) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Walk peacefully amonst the yews
Where to find the churchyard yews on this lens
Photo by nb360