Tree Profile: Yew (taxus baccata)

Tree Profile: Yew (taxus baccata)

Yew – Taxus baccata

Few western European trees are as enigmatic as the Yew. Dark, brooding and sometimes eery, each Yew tree very much has its own personality.

 

Botany:

The Yew (Taxus baccata) is an evergreen, needle bearing conifer- but a strange one. Instead of wooden cones, it shelters its seed in a bright red, soft and slimy fruit cortex that takes the shape of a cup (Baccata = cup). The seeds, hidden within the ‘cup, along with all other parts of the tree except for the arils, are highly poisonous.

Yews are dioecious; female and male flowers appear on different trees, but only the female flower-bearing tree produces the fruits. They reach sexual maturity between 15-30 years of age, pretty young, considering their potential lifespan! It is difficult to measure the exact age of a Yew tree because most of them become hollow as they age, which means we can’t count tree rings. But in Britain and Europe, there are several, estimated to be between 2000 and 4000 years old!

As trees go, their height is not that impressive. Yews only grow to about 10-20 m tall, but they can develop an admirable circumference of more than 6 m. Unlike most conifers, they do not produce any resin.

Yews have a dark appearance, and they love shady spots. But they tolerate the sun if they were exposed to it from the start.

Yew of If d'Estry, Normandy

Roi.dagobert, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Mythology:

As an evergreen with a seemingly infinite lifespan and a somewhat dark, mysterious Gestalt, it is not surprising that Yews have been linked to the realm of the Dead. In Britain, the oldest Yews are found in cemeteries, often in association with a sacred spring. Britain’s oldest one is the Yew of Fortingall, in Perth, Scotland, believed to be some 3000 years old. However, its age is difficult to verify since it is hollow, and young shoots that grow from the centre, fuse with older ones, thus constantly rejuvenating itself.

In the runic alphabet, the Yew is associated with Eiwhaz Rune, which signifies the shortest day of the year, the eve of the winter solstice. It symbolizes the dying Sun but also its rebirth, since Yews possess this magic power of rejuvenation. Yews cast the dark, silent cape of eternity over the departed and take care of their souls in the afterworld until the time of their rebirth has come.

Thus, Yews are symbolic of life and death, seen as complementary forces rather than polar opposites, and joined at the threshold at the beginning and the end of our lives.

Folklore: Sleeping under a Yew tree was thought to induce prophetic dreams and offer a glimpse beyond the veil.

 

 

Properties and uses

Yew BerryA couple of thousand years ago, Yews were common throughout Europe and Britain. But they are slow-growing trees that were decimated for the sake of war. Yews were the primary source-wood for longbows – which, before the invention of gunpowder, were the most common weapon of war. Even today, Yew bows are used for making longbows for archery. In medieval times, Yews were planted in and around castle grounds to ensure a steady supply.
The wood, which is both strong and elastic, is superbly suited for this purpose. Archaeological evidence has shown that it has been used to make weapons since prehistoric times. Palaeolithic spears and arrowheads made of Yew have been found in a marl pit in southern England. The arrowheads had been dipped in an arrow poison made of Yew, Hellebore and Hemlock to make them extra lethal. Yews alkaloids first stimulate, then slow the heart rate, causing the victim to fall into a coma and die within an hour and a half. The oldest such spear, some 150 000 years old, was still stuck between the ribs of a mammoth carcass.

By the 16th century, Yews were almost extinct. But, they were saved by the invention of gunpowder which was invented right around that time, allowing Yew populations to recover.

 

Medicinal uses:

In recent times, Yews were in the news for saving lives. A compound found in the Pacific Yew, Taxus brevifolia, was discovered to have cytostatic properties, capable of inhibiting cancerous growth. But both, the Pacific Yew and its habitat are threatened. A single tree only yields 3 kg of bark, containing only 1g of Taxol, the sought-after active compound. Taxol proved highly effective in chemotherapy for treating breast- and ovarian cancer, and thus was in high demand. Given the slow growth and endangered status of the trees, the situation was precarious. Scientists were struggling to find a way to synthesize Taxol from other sources. But eventually, the breakthrough came in the 1990s. Scientists had managed to create Taxol molecules from Taxus baccata, the European Yew, which is a far more common species.

Thus, the Yew has held true to its ancient promise as a harbinger of both death and life.

Samhain

Samhain

At Samhain, the Goddess retreats into the deep vault of the earth to join her dark lover in the Underworld. Life withdraws, and the landscape turns bleak, cold, and grey. There are no more fruit or flowers, and the birds have left on their journey to the south. We mark this time of death and decay by remembering and honouring those who have gone before us. Death is but a stage of the wheel of life. Far below the surface, the Goddess sheds her old cloak and falls into a deep meditation that regenerates her vital life-giving energies.
We face the darkness of the cold season, as the Sun grows weaker and has little power left to warm us.

At this time, remember that life and death are aspects of the same eternal cycle. One cannot exist without the other. There is no light without darkness. This is a time for reflection and reminiscence, and for gathering our inner strength in contemplation – for soon, the wheel of the year will turn again, and the Sun will be reborn once more.

Autumn Equinox

Autumn Equinox

Happy Autumn Equinox!

At the Autumn Equinox, night and day are in balance once again. The forces of light and dark are in perfect equilibrium. The Equinox marks the end of the harvest season, and we celebrate the gifts of the Earth on Thanksgiving (not to be confused with the American celebration, which takes place in late November). From this day on, the vital earth energy begins to retreat below ground. The days are getting shorter, and summer is over.

The end of the summer marks an intensely busy time of gathering and preserving the gifts of the earth, giving thanks and preparing for the coming winter months. Most of the harvest has been brought in. Now we hunt for nuts and mushrooms.

Autumn Equinox is the time to give thanks, take stock and prepare for the lean months ahead. Stock up the larder and make sure your woodpile is high and dry so that your supplies will see you through the winter until the Sun will be reborn once more.

Image by Sabrina Ripke from Pixabay

Lughnasad

Lughnasad

The time of the grain harvest

Lughnasad marks the beginning of the harvest season. The fruit and vegetables are ripening, and the grain is turning golden. It is an intensely busy and happy time, especially for gardeners. The efforts of the early part of the year are paying off.

 

The growing period from spring to harvest is fraught with danger: Late frosts can kill sensitive starters, and summer storms can ruin the crop in just a few minutes. The harvest is by no means guaranteed. But once the grain has been cut, we reap the efforts of our labour. It is time to celebrate. 

 

Lughnasad is called Lammas in the Christian tradition, which comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘hlaf-mas’, meaning ‘loaf mass’. Bread and wine are the traditional sacraments of the Eucharist.

 

But harvesting the seed is only one of the stages of the perpetual cycle of life. The harvest does not only fill our bellies now but must sustain us through the dark season and provide the potential of growth for the year ahead. We reap as we sow, but we also sow as we have reaped.

 

In the face of the unfolding climate catastrophe, it is especially important that we not only give thanks for the gifts of today, but that we also reflect on what we wish to reap in the year(s) ahead. 

Summer Solstice

Summer Solstice

The Midsummer Solstice marks the day when the Sun reaches the zenith of its annual journey. We celebrate it as the longest day and shortest night. It is a magical time: nature’s blossoming is at its peak and the veils between the world are thin: sprites and spirits cross easily between them and some of us may catch a glimpse of the little folk.

Bel, the young Sun-God, has reached his climax. His powers are exhausted. Lugh takes over the reign. It is for him to ripen the fruits of the earth that will sustain us through the dark half of the year.

The Summer Solstice is a time for honouring the Gods. We make our ritual offerings and pray for protection, for health and well-being, and a plentiful harvest.

But most of all it is a festive time of gatherings and celebrations, of revelling around huge bonfires fires throughout the night. Dancing, feasting, and merry-making are the order of the day.

The herbs are now at their most potent, and we should gather our supplies for the year.

Spiritually, it is a time to seek guidance and protection through divination or to retreat on a vision quest.

Happy Beltane!

Happy Beltane!

On May 1, we celebrate Beltane, the festival of spring. Mother Earth is donning her lushest gown of flowers and blossoms, and birds are singing from the trees. The heart rejoices as the spirit soars! At Beltane, we celebrate the magical powers of creativity, fertility and abundance – the sheer miraculous beauty of life. The God and the Goddess who preside over the undying force of life are in love, turning the land green and lush wherever they go. Every fragrant flower – a kiss and a blessing of their adoration. Let’s share in their passion and celebrate life’s miracle! Beauty, love and merry-making are their rituals. Taste the zest of life! If you have a garden, you are witnessing and partaking in this magic as you nurture your young seedlings. Pouring energy into your budding projects produces a similar experience of participating in this magic of creating. The magic of manifestation lies in the nurture and love that nurtures the seed ideas. Take time to reflect on nature’s generosity and practice gratitude and mindfulness to attune to every nuance of this blessed time of the year.   Photo credit: Image by Ronny Overhate from Pixabay

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