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Yew Trees, Dartmoor

Yew

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
         Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
         The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.”
Thomas Grey – Elegy written in a churchyard

There are many splendid yew trees to be found in the various Dartmoor churches as well as in and around the moorland towns, villages, hamlets and gardens. The common yew tree or Taxus baccata to properly acknowledge them are native to the United Kingdom with some of the ancient yews dating back hundreds of years. Being deciduous trees means that there are male and female flowers which normally can be seen around March and April of each year. Yew trees do not produce seed bearing cones but instead bear red, fleshy berries that contain the seeds, these being a favourite food of blackbirds who help disperse the seeds via their droppings. A well known fact that both the foliage and most of the berry are highly poisonous both to humans and animals as between them they contain a pretty toxic cocktail of alkaloids. Yews live much longer than most other British tree species for several reasons; firstly, their dense evergreen canopy keeps the roots etc dry which reduces the incidents of infection and decay. This in turn provides for a strong root system which gives a greater protection from storm damage which can also lead to decay. Secondly the toxicity of the tree provides protection from parasites, yew trees have only two species of parasite; the yew gall wasp and the yellow bracket fungus. Again this is a huge advantage when compered to other tree species, for example the oak trees have at least 200 known species of parasites that prey upon them.

When it comes to the actual toxic chemical components of the yew tree leaves nobody has exactly identified the alkaloids as they can vary sightly from region to region. In general these compounds are mainly a mixture of taxine alkaloids and volatile oils. As far as the latter goes these can cause abdominal pain and vomiting whereas the taxine alkaloids cause heart stress with eventually end in heart failure.  Dioscorides, a first century botanist and herbalist wrote: “The yew tree is very venomous to be taken inwardly, and if any doe sleepe under the shadow thereof it causes sickness and often times death.  Moreover, they say that the fruit thereof being eaten is not only dangerous unto man , but if birds do eat thereof it causeth them to cast their feathers, and many times to die.” There are records of people committing suicide by eating yew leaves, one documented case in 1834 describes how a woman ate the leaves, fainted, convulsed and died within the hour. In 1838 another woman fed her three children teaspoons of dried yew leaves as a herbal cure for parasitic worms, all died as a result.  In 1907 a man was found dead in Devonport cemetery and at his inquest the verdict was; “death by suicide whilst of unsound mind,” the cause of death was determined as yew poisoning. However it is known that if these taxines are collected from large amounts of yew clippings they can produce a useful cancer drugs which today chemists can synthesise. Many of the symptoms of yew poisoning that effects humans are similar in livestock such as horses and cattle and there have been many cases of animals dying from eating yew. Some of these cases have actually ended up in court when the owner sues a negligent landowner for allowing yew to grow in proximity to livestock.

In February the male yew develop yellow tips, these the develop and from March to April clouds of yellow pollen dust are dispersed in the breezes which then pollinate female yews. In some cases these pollen clouds can reach female trees some miles away. Once pollinated the female tree then produces in September or November red berries known as arils which contain Rhodaxanthin which can produce a natural red dye. Although not as poisonous as the leaves the seeds, when chewed, cause increased heart rates, disorientation, confusion, nausea and vomiting. Oddly enough the red berry coating can in fact be eaten and is said to be sweet to the taste, it is also possible to make yew jam provided all the seeds are removed. It is well worth noting that there is no known antidote for yew poisoning and should any ever be ingested immediate medical help should be sought – death can occur within hours! Having said that here is an interesting letter sent to the Western Morning News in 1888 from a correspondent from Tavistock: I have many such trees (Yew Trees) in my little domain and as some of the branches unfortunately overhang the street. I am at the season regularly bombarded with stones by the urchins from the Board School, who, as fast as the sweet, crimson, glutinous cups fall, scramble for and greedily devour them. I have never heard of any evil therefrom arising, but a broken pane or two and a garden the highway Inspector might envy, to the owner of the yew trees. let me add that the thrush will prefer this fruit when ripe to any other food.”

Probably the most common association of yew trees is that of the churchyards and cemeteries, many fine examples can be seen on and around Dartmoor, a few examples can be seen below. There has been a great deal of speculation as to why yew trees were originally planted in such sacred places. It is thought that yew trees have had a British tradition of planting them at places of burial and worship for well over 1,500 years. They have always been a symbol of the souls immortality and that they provide shelter for any nearby buildings, graves, tombs, or people. Another common dubious theory is that in 1483 Richard III ordered that yew trees should be generally planted in order to supply wood with which to make the famous longbows from. However to counter-act this idea there is the thought that they were planted in churchyards to stop people cutting bow-wood. The reason for this being that the bows could be used against authority in uprisings or rebellions which was working on the theory that general superstitions of churchyards would deter such actions. The other deterrent theory of yew trees is that they were planted in churchyards to discourage people from letting their livestock grazing on the hallowed ground.

Yew4
In Memorium 2 – Lord A. Tennyson

It is not just churchyards where yew trees are found, in some cases they occur in hedgerows where they provide shelter for livestock and even travellers venturing past. It may seem odd that such a poisonous tree should be planted near to livestock but management was the key factor in avoiding any losses. In some cases the trees may have been planted to act as early boundary markers but in the case of Dartmoor these would be located (if any) on the border fringes. Finally, from about the 17th century yew trees, avenues and formal yew hedges were popular features which landscape designers such as Capability Brown used. In the case of hedges these also included the art of topiary as they provided both decoration and acted as shelter.

Probably the oldest yew tree to be found in a Dartmoor churchyard is the one at Holne which is thought to date back as far as the 13th century. Manaton church can also boast a ‘noteable’ yew tree as can St. Petroc’s church in South Brent. As these venerable yew trees were so prominent and located fairly centrally they would often be used for pinning notices of various kinds. There are records of the yew tree which stands in the village of Widecombe in the Moor being used to place foxes tails in order to collect the bounty which was being paid at the time.

It is thought that yew trees have been associated with place-names from at least Anglo Saxon times if not earlier with such words as eoh and iw being mutated into modern versions. There are several examples on Dartmoor which are associated with yew trees. Another name for the river Ashburn is ‘The Yeo’ meaning ‘Yew Stream’ which dates back to the 1700s and in a similar light there are two ‘Yeo Farms’, and a Yeoland, again all with yew inferences.

It was the custom on Dartmoor for mourners to leave sprays of yew in the graves of the departed which because of the tree’s long-life span symbolised everlasting life. At one time it was also the custom to place sprigs of yew in the shrouds of the deceased before they were sewn up. Below you can see some lines written by Robert Herrick which refers to these customs.  Another literary reference to these practices can be found in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night  when Feste the fool remarks; “shroud of white, stuck all with yew.”

yew5

At Easter time yew branches were/are used to decorate the churches to act as a symbol of the triumph of life over death and of life in the after world. Such was the respect given to the yew tree that it was deemed unlucky to ever cut down a churchyard yew or to cause it any damage to its branches. Likewise to burn yew wood was an invitation for ill fortune to visit those guilty of such disrespect and to actually dream of a yew tree was a portent that the death of an elderly family member was imminent.  A rather gruesome belief from the seventeenth century was the the branches of the yew tree would absorb the gases produced by decomposing corpses and also prevent visitations by ghosts and other apparitions. In 1636 Robert Turner in his book  Botanoaotia; “If the Yew be set in a place subject to poisonous vapours, the very branches will draw and imbibe them, hence it is conceived that the judicious in former times planted it in churchyards on the West side, because those places, being fuller of putrefaction and gross oleaginous vapours exhaled out of the graves by the setting sun and sometimes drawn by those meteors called ‘lgnes fatui’, divers have been frightened, supposing some dead bodies to walk, not that it is able to drive away Devils as some superstitious monks have imagined.”

Yew wood is said to be the hardest of the softwoods but still retains an amount of flexibility which makes it ideal for cabinet and furniture making, as a veneer, for turning and making musical instruments from, making tool handles. There is a Dartmoor company at Postbridge which sell hand-crafted flutes on a commission basis which can includes ones made from yew wood which where possible is locally sourced. Whether or not there is any early ritual connection with yew wood but the earliest man-made object ever found in Britain was made from yew. In 1911 a lance tip made from yew was discovered at Clacton in Essex. This artefact was dated to around 300,000 years BC and was just one of two wooden artefacts found from this period. With regards to bow making, as noted above it’s a well known theory that yew was a popular choice for such weapons. In 1994 a man found a yew bow, still in good condition, in a peat bog in Carrifan Glen in Dumfriesshire, this was dated to to around 4,000 BC. Oddly enough there is no evidence of English yew being used for bow making in the Iron Age and Roman era but there evidence of a crude one dating from the thirteen century.  The popularity of this wood for bow making ran from between 1200 and 1650 although many authorities tend to agree that it was imported Spanish yew that was being made. This variety tended to be far superior to the English yew which was brittle and knotty in comparison. At one time it was the practice of  horsemen to rub their horses with  dried and powdered yew bark as it was said to make their coats shine. In some instances they would also feed small quantities of the powder to the horses in order to achieve the same results.

Further

Bevan Jones, R. 2002. The Ancient Yew Tree. Bollington: Windgather press.

The Ancient Yew Group – website HERE.

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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