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Tree of the Month - Yew
Maria Ellis
By Maria Ellis  //  Tue 7th November 2017
Trees, Nature, Tree Nursery
The Yew is a tree of mystery. A slippery character, it is contradictory, inscrutable and resists each identity we presume to cloak it with. A shifty, enigmatic species, Taxus baccata can be incredibly old yet eternally young, life-giving yet quick to snatch life away and can take the form of a carefully clipped hedge, epitomizing everything that is prim and proper, or a wild and sprawling beast with gnarled trunk and twisted roots. These opposing characteristics make the Yew a curious tree, one that can be awe inspiring whilst also sending a little shiver down your spine.

Standing beneath a magnificent tree, countless years old, is always a moment of wonder. It is hard to imagine the many events these stationary giants have witnessed for as the world changes around them trees remain a calm and constant factor in our landscape. However, no tree has the potential to make you feel quite as tiny and insignificant as the Yew. Believed to be the oldest species in Europe, there are still some Yew trees that predate Christianity and one of the oldest specimens is here in Britain. The Fortingal Yew in Perthshire is thought to be anywhere between 3000-9000 years old and legend has it that Pontius Pilate once played under it’s branches as a child. This extreme longevity is partly due to the Yew’s incredibly slow growth rate and partly because of it’s amazing ability to hollow out so it can become more flexible as it grows. This might be good for the Yew but it can make it very difficult for anyone trying to age the tree! This hollowing technique destroys the tree’s growth rings and so estimations can vary between several thousands of years! No matter how old a Yew gets however, it still manages to stay young at heart. Drooping branches form roots where they brush the earth and allow the tree to ‘regenerate’ in the form of a new sapling. This association with long life and resurrection has made the Yew a popular symbol within the Christian faith and Yews can be found in hundreds of church yards across the country and are often older than the church itself.

Although here at Castle Howard we cannot boast a Yew quite as old as the famous Fortingal, you can find several impressive specimens across the Estate. A grand, old Yew stands solemnly at the heart of Ray Wood, it’s bark a handsome auburn and it’s needles a dark forest green. Estimated to be around 200-300 years old, this proud tree has seen many a visitor tread the twisting woodland paths. If you get caught out on a rainy winter’s day, take shelter under the Yews down by the South Lake. Their bending boughs will keep you dry while you watch the rain drops ripple across the water or if traditional landscaping is more to your taste, take a walk round the South Lawn and marvel at the neatly clipped yew hedging. It takes our Grounds Team 5 miles of pruning to keep this hedging looking its best every year.!

Take care not to get too close though as the Yew is not only a reflection long life but it is also a symbol of doom! Nearly every single part of the tree is poisonous from the bark, sap and needles to the tiny black seeds. Only the bright red arils that surround the seeds are non-toxic and edible. Non-the-less, I certainly wouldn’t recommend tasting these rather slimy berries, unless you are a blackbird of course in which case they are the most delicious winter delicacies around. However, it’s not just the tree’s raw state that is dangerous; the timber can be put to devastating use too.

Incredibly strong but surprisingly elastic, Yew were used to make the famous English longbows used to such deadly effect during the Hundred Years’ War and the Battle of Agincourt.

Don’t let this gloom put you off though! The Yew is a fascinating and striking tree. Always a talking point, it makes for an impressive addition to any landscape. The Castle Howard Tree Nursery has hedging ready to plant so get creative and see what imaginative topiary you can come up with or plant a tree and watch it grow. It’s a little bit of history in the making.

Enquire at our Tree Nursery today on 01653 648646.