Plant of the Month December 2017

Yew – Taxus baccata

 We are all familiar with four plants which produce winter berries. These are often used in Christmas decorations. Holly, ivy, mistletoe and yew all have attractive fruits in the winter. These plants have developed this valuable asset which aids in the dispersal of their seeds by birds. Holly seeds are dispersed by blackbirds and thrushes in their droppings after eating the berries. Ivy is also a favourite of woodpigeons who regurgitate the seeds away from the mother plant. Mistletoe seeds are sticky and are carried on the beaks of mainly thrushes. They wipe the seeds onto branches to clean their beaks, hence spreading the seeds to other trees.

Yew trees are actually conifers, but have no cones. Like hollies they have two separate male and female plants. The berry like structures form on the latter,  are called arils and have a single seed surrounded by a jelly like sugary ‘gloop’, and a red outer skin.  All parts of the plant are poisonous except for the gloop. The seeds are often eaten whole by greenfinches and great tits who appear immune to the plant toxins. Thrushes and waxwings swallow the seeds which are then later dispersed in their droppings. Other birds can dissect off the outer red skin and just eat the sweet gloop.

Yew wood is prized as an attractive wood in furniture making. It is also strong and bendable and historically was used to make longbows. However in 1967 it was discovered that the poisonous toxins in yew were able to inhibit cell division  (they are called taxenes named after the Latin name of the plant). This finding has developed into a valuable drug now used in tumour chemotherapy.

Yew trees adjusted.web size

At Reveley we have four newly planted small yew trees at the corners of the medicinal bed next to the mulberry tree. Several other mature much larger trees, including female berrying plants are to be seen in the Clay Lane side of the garden. Although said to be slow growing, the yew hedge at the top of the main lawn was planted by the garden volunteers in March 2005 and is now a fine dense hedge.

Yew trees were often planted in churchyards to protect and purify the dead, and were especially placed over the graves of plague victims. It was always a religious symbol of immortality – so long lasting and green.

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