In Europe and the United Kingdom, the densely needled evergreen called yew stands vigil in churchyards and cemetaries. The wood resists decay so well that clergy traditionally cited it as a symbol of eternal life. But because the seeds of its fruit and withering foliage contain poison, it may have been planted in these enclosures to protect the living—both animals and man. Yew, in fact, was considered fatally toxic in Shakespeare's time. He cited "slips of yew" as part of witches' brew in Macbeth.
While those who partake of yew may not see another sunrise, the tree itself lives a long time and grows to enormous size. A yew growing at Tandridge Church, in Surrey, England, measures 45' in diameter, and experts estimate it to be 2,500 years old!
The wood of the yew, because of its toughness, has always been suited for abuse-prone posts and furniture. Yet, yew played a much more important role in history.
The formidable English military weapon of the Middle Ages—the longbow—was made of yew. In fact the law decreed only royal longbowman could have yew bows. Commoners had to settle for ash and elm. At times, yew became scarce, and the English had to import their bow wood from Spain and Italy. At the Battle of Crecy on August 26, 1346, the English devotion to yew longbows became well-justified. The rapid-firing longbowmen destroyed the French calvary and carried the day.
In America, the Scottish botanist David Douglas discovered a variety of yew along Oregon's Columbia River in the 1800s. Indians there were using it for bows, too!
Photograph: Bob Calmer Illustration: Jim Stevenson