Friday, 1 July 2011


Yews or ywen in Welsh, are primordial trees having their roots in the Triassic Age as fossilized parts of the yew have been found dating back to this and the later Jurassic periods of prehistory. They survived the last Ice Age, and comprised an estimated 79 % of forests in Europe as the glaciers and ice receded to the north. There can be little surprise, then that this tree is steeped in history, and there are specimens which are believed to be between 4 and 5,000 years old. The Jurupa oak in California is thought to be 13,000 years old so is the oldest living tree found so far. The ancient yew in a churchyard at Llangernyw village in North Wales is one of these trees, and is located in the churchyard of St. Dygain. It was a sapling in the Bronze Age and is in the world’s top 5 oldest living organisms. The yew is opposite two standing stones, erected by the Celts, and the church stand in the middle of these ancient relics.
Yew at Llangarnyw
  There is a local legend that the Recording Angel, Angelystor, frequented the yew at this churchyard every year at Halloween and in a resonating voice, called out the names of the parishioners who would die the following year. One year a foolhardy local, Sion ap Robert, was drinking in the pub with his mates on Halloween and scoffed at the legend. To prove how much he doubted the legend he walked through the churchyard, and passing under the yew, heard his name called. He was terrified and said that he wasn’t ready to die. Nevertheless that coming year he was buried in the churchyard.
  In Llangadwaladr in North Wales, there is another ancient yew tree, again in a churchyard, that was planted in an avenue of yews, perhaps by the ancient Celts who planted these trees along ley lines linking water, wells, springs and high points of power. This one is linked to St. Cadwaladr, Prince of Gwynedd and the stories surrounding the Pendragons. (Uther Pendragon is said to have been the father of King Arthur.)  This extract from a poem by W. Cowan demonstrates how the Druids regarded yews.
      “Here Druid priests their altars placed.
          And sun and moon adored
            A tree – the sacred Yew,
            Symbol of immortality-
            Beside their altar grew.”
The ancient Celts and their priestly caste of Druids regarded the yew as the doorway to the Otherworld and believed that at Samhein and Beltane, there could be better communication between those living in this world and ancestors in the Otherworld. The yew was a link between life and death symbolizing death, rebirth and immortality. Shamans would sniff the vapours from the yew which it emits in high summer to gain visions.
  Another famous yew tree is the one at Fortingall in Perthshire, Scotland, which is also in a churchyard and is thought to be at least 4,000 years old. It stands at the entrance to Glen Lyon and is associated in legend with Pontius Pilate, Christ and the Glastonbury thorn. Cuttings from this tree have been planted at Glastonbury and at the Seat of Scone in Scotland, as well as other historic places.
  It is extremely difficult for dendrologists to estimate the age of yew trees as they tend to split and the one in Llangernyw once housed a tank between the split in it which is shown in the picture. Yews may seem to die, but new saplings grow from the roots so regenerate. It is believed that they all come from an original species, Paleotaxus rediviva which basically means ancient yew tree reborn. They have managed to survive the climatic changes that the Earth has gone through for more than two hundred million years.
  Yews are slow-growing trees with a close, tight grain and have been used to make agricultural implements, decorative items and weaponry through the centuries. The Mediaeval longbows (the weapon of choice in those days) were traditionally made from yew. However if you are thinking of carving yew wood, you need to be very careful as it is poisonous, and even the sawdust can be harmful-use protective clothing. The only part of the tree that is not poisonous is the fleshy red aril which grows around the toxic seeds. Smart birds eat this fleshy part but reject the seed inside it. Some arrows were tipped with poison from these trees.
Yew hedge
  The trees were sacred to the pagan Celts in the British Isles and they were so full of power, people believed that churches were built very close to them. They are a symbol of death as they grow in churchyards, but originally they were symbols of death and rebirth. Christianity changed beliefs a little but not entirely. Well-preserved carved items have been found near wells and springs, which might have been votive offerings, as the Druids in particular, thought that natural sources of water had magical powers, as may be seen in the legends of the hazel trees and the wise salmon.
  The yew is believed to have protective powers against all evils, and is a bringer of dreams for soothsayers. It is also a Celtic “forbidden tree” as it can be used to abort foetuses.
  The yew, like the birch and the rowan or mountain ash, can grow well in the shade of other trees, and the male tree has small yellow flowers which have pollen in February, while the female tree has the distinctive red berries, which should not be mistaken for juniper berries. It is related to the Himalayan oak, and like it the bark contains taxol which can be made into an anti-cancer drug. The Pacific yew was harvested almost to the point of extinction for its taxol, and a similar fate may yet meet its Himalayan relative. In Britain the ancient trees, at least are protected, but it also contains this substance.
  Despite the fact that the yew is poisonous it has been prepared by traditional healers to cure various diseases, such as those of the heart and kidneys and gout, as well as neuralgia, cystitis, headaches and failing eyesight. However it is advisable not to try any remedies with yew that you have prepared yourself. Leave it to the people who have had the information about herbs and other plants handed down through their families for generations.

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