64. Irish Yew

(Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata')

Other Common Names: Common Yew, European Yew

Family: Taxaceae

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In the old part of the Medicinal Herb Garden west of Garfield Lane are four Irish Yews. The two in the middle are golden, and the others are regular green. This variety of yew originated before 1760 in the mountains above Florence Court, Co. Fermanagh, Ireland. It is especially common in old neighborhoods and cemeteries. It is a small tree reaching 35-65 feet (10-20 meters) in height. The bark is thin, brown and scaly and the leaves are needle-like and arranged in spirals around the branches. The leaf bases twist to align the leaves into two rows with one on either side of the branch. Some claims have Yew trees living to be 5,000-9,000 years old; however other evidence points to the oldest species being around 2,000 years. Regardless, it is the longest living plant in Europe.

Yew is poisonous, so don't eat the slimy red berries or the leaves. Its wood is hard, heavy, dark, fine, lovely and prized for making bows. It can also be burned as incense. The invaluable taxol alkaloid in the bark of our native Pacific Coast species generated considerable publicity about yews in recent years because of its possible use in treating ovarian cancer. It is tolerant of trimming and is used in topiary. It is rumored that even 1,000 year-old plants will re-sprout if cut back.

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