Thursday, May 8, 2014

Our Grand Old Yew Tree

Dear George,
When we bought our house on Ludlow Avenue some forty years ago, one of the selling points was the magnificent yew tree in the front yard.  The real estate agent told us that it is the largest yew tree in the state of Ohio and may well be a historical landmark. Yew trees are evergreens with dark-green needles, scaly brown bark, and small cones.  I’d say ours is about forty feet wide and forty-five feet high.  The trunk has a circumference of nine feet at its base.  Because of its large, low-hanging branches, it’s a favorite for climbing by little kids in the neighborhood. It was hit several years ago by a speeding car that jumped the curb and crashed into it head-on, though the yew was solid enough to resist any enduring damage.  Last year, though, a number of branches appeared to be dying, and a tree service came, pruned the tree, and injected fertilizer into the ground.  This spring there appears to be even more widespread deterioration.  The tree service man said we could either cut it down entirely or remove the central trunk whose dying boughs constitute a major part of the tree.  I asked how that would look.  He said, “Terrible.”  He did add that there’s a slight chance that the tree might still be rejuvenated, though he wasn’t optimistic.  He didn’t think it was the largest yew tree in Ohio, but he said it might be the oldest.  We’re going to cross our fingers and give the yew another month or two.  In the meantime, I thought I’d better commemorate our yew tree with a few photos (see below).  In addition, here are some little known but remarkable facts about yews:

  • The Fortingall Yew in Scotland is said to be the oldest tree in Europe (2000 to 3000 years old).  It's believed that Pontius Pilate slept under it while on duty before 30 CE.   
  • The bark, leaves, and seeds of the yew tree are poisonous and have been used for assassinations, suicides, and poison arrows.  Horses, cattle, and humans have died from eating yew leaves, though moose and deer are impervious.  
  • Yew leaves are used to create a drug called taxol which inhibits the growth of cancer cells. 
  • The flesh of yew berries can be used as a laxative. 
  • The oldest known wooden implement is a spear made of yew wood about 450,000 years ago from what’s now England.
  • Yew trees have traditionally been used to make longbows.  Archeologists have found yew longbows and knives from Swiss lake areas that are 10,000 years old.
  • Because of its hardness, yew wood has been used to make axles, cogs, and shuttles, as well as veneer furniture, tankards, and tool handles.
  • The yew was prized by lute-makers in the medieval, renaissance, and baroque eras.
  • In Norse mythology, the home of Ullr, the god of the bow, was named Yew Dales (Ydalir).
  • The Romans believed that yews grew in Hell. 
  • In ancient Europe the yew was believed to have magical properties, including providing protection for the dead on their journey to the otherworld. 
  • Sprigs from yew trees have been used by dowsers to find lost objects.
  • Swiss mountaineers refer to the yew as “William’s tree,” in honor of William Tell.
  • Lord Alfred Tennyson's poem, "In Memoriam A.H.H.," incorporates the yew tree as a symbol of sadness.  T.S. Eliot frequently used the yew tree as a symbol in his religious poetry.

SOURCES:, “Yew trees”;, “Yew”;, "Yew Tree Facts";, "Herbs,Trees & Fungi: Yew";, "Taxus", "Taxus Baccata" 

G-mail Comments
Phyllis S-S (5-8): Dear Dave,  I hope it survives.  Our Gardner might be able to help.  He knows a lot and used to own a gardening store before he retired. Our little yard is his paid hobby…  Hope all is well with you, Katja and the doggies.  Best, Phyllis

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