Poetry of Yew
Yew; a church, a cathedral of the ancient world,
Outliving stone and tomb that have been poistioned well.
The red barren earth beneath illuminates her imposing grandeur,
She makes no apology for the life destroyed beneath her.
And yet that destruction is hard won,
As she inexorably grows, conscious of every inch.
Alchemy of Shaman, reborn from bird,
The seed took flight before being buried in the earth.
Encapsulated in earth’s womb before being reborn,
She knows of vulnerability, the terror of being small.
Many of our lifetimes have passed, to reach this pinnacle,
Her great age of fruition, indestructable.
A physical form of the eternal soul, the Shaman, the Bard,
Would do to know her well.
Judge not her lessons, cold and irresponsible,
For she dwells in eternity and cares not for the vulnerable.
Goddess of Power, Goddess of Age,
Goddess of Strength, Respect her Ways.
Yew Taxus baccata (Latin) Idhadh (Ogham/Gaelic)
Oldest of woods, service tree, Yew.
Strength or colour of a sick man, people or an age.
Abuse of an ancestor or pleasing consent.
Book of Ballymote 1391
The yew and the oak probably feature more in British traditions than any other tree. Yew speaks of ancestors, death and re-birth and when you see a mature tree with its dark foliage sweeping down to the ground and taking root you can see why. Yew is Britain’s oldest living tree, pre-dating many of the churches to whose grounds it belongs. The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire is said to be around 5000 years old.
However yew is notoriously difficult to age. At one time it was thought that the church was built and a yew tree planted but carbon dating has proven the tree is often far older than the church and said to have sheltered Christian missionaries long before the church was built. Evidence suggests that these sites were already used by the older faiths of Britain and so it is likely that in order to integrate a new religion they would have continued to use the same sacred site.
Ring-counting as well as carbon dating can be inaccurate for the yew as it will remain dormant for hundreds of years!
The Yew has an amazing ability to survive, often growing profusely on chalk down-lands resisting shade and pollution effectively. There is a folk tale of yew which emphasises its genetic ability to withstand disaster.
The tree is sad that its foliage is dark and uninteresting so the fairies wanting to please the tree turn its foliage to gold which thieves then steal. They then turn its foliage to crystal and the foliage shatters in a storm; and then into large broad leaves which are eaten by goats. The yew concludes its foliage is perfect to withstand the test of time and celebrates its dark appearance.
The theme of death is often associated with yew which contains deadly poisons especially in its wilting foliage and seeds. Modern research has also uncovered the chemical taxol in yew to help treat cancer. Due to its dangerous poisons yew as a herb is only used as a tincture helping symptoms of cystitis, headaches, afflictions of the heart and problems with the kidneys, gout and rheumatism.
In stories and traditions yew is always regarded with caution. The old Celtic kenning for yew states – ‘abuse of an ancestor or pleasing consent.' It is said to be unlucky to cut the tree and that the wood should only be taken from fallen trees.
However practical application seems to always win through and this lore has not stopped yew being cut for its main use as a bow. Maybe using a tree with a deadly reputation as a weapon actually fits in with the ancient lore as it certainly brought much success to those who wielded it. Its wood is perfect to make long bows although in Britain it is often too knotty and brittle for this purpose.
The perfect bow made from coniferous type trees ( which includes yew) should be slow growing. This means the most prized yew wood is that which comes from high altitudes growing in exposed windswept places. The early ballads of Robin Hood claim his bow is made of Spanish yew.
Yew can be used to symbolise resurrection when used on palm Sunday and at Easter. Yew shoots have been put into the shrouds of the dead to protect and restrain the spirits. This connection with spirits and death is a constant theme especially as the tree is often seen growing by the graves of our departed loved ones maybe easing their passage or allowing us to commune with them? Further stories explore the idea of yew being an entrance to the other worlds. Thomas of Erceldoune known as Thomas the Rhymer from the thirteenth century, is said to still await his re-birth in an old Scottish yew grove after visiting the faerie realms.
Yew has also been known as the King’s Wheel as it represents the cycle of life and death. This is demonstrated by Kings when their reign is finished and its passed it on to their heir.
In Ireland yew is recognised as one of the most sacred trees, the tree of eternity transcending time and able to give the gift of invisibility to one who uses it. Mad shaman-type poets like Sweeney Gilt and Merlin are said to take shelter and acquire all their knowledge in the yew grove and Fionn and his loyal warriors are said to have met their end there on Samhain eve.
The oldest found weapon is a crude spear of yew from the Stone Age. Yew’s wood is also used for furniture, paneling, fence posts, ship masts and wine barrels.
For a more detailed exploration you may wish to explore our Tree Folklore Course and support valuable Conservation work.
Poetry of flowers
Join me to explore the flora of the British Isles on this blog. My intention is to attempt to capture the unique quality and beauty of each species of flower, tree or shrub. For every species featured I will be growing many more wildflowers to celebrate the joy of their existence, their intrinsic conservation value and bewildering array of uses. For nearly 30 years I have noted, studied and explored wildflowers in the field much to the patience of the walker beside me. To share this passion is a heartfelt plea to respect, preserve and care for all British Wildflowers no matter how common they seem.