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European Yew or Common Yew (Taxus baccata) An article from "The Trees Of Old England" by Leo H.Grindon
European Yew or Common Yew (Taxus baccata) by Leo Hartley Grindon; Previously a Lecturer on Botany at the Royal School of Medicine, Manchester. Author of "Life: its Nature, Varieties, and Phenomena;" "British and Garden Botany;" " The Little Things of Nature;" "Echoes in Plant and Flower Life," and others.
European Yew or Common Yew (Taxus baccata) A Sketch of the aspects, associations and uses of European Yew or Common Yew (Taxus baccata) which constitute the forests and give effect to the scenery of Great Britain.
In strong contrast with all other trees indigenous to the British islands, by reason of its poisonous foliage, stands, the sombre yew, Taxus baccata. Were not a single example of deleterious properties to exist among our trees, it would at least be in exception to the remarkable and significant rule that everything in nature shall have its dreary side. Thank God, it is left to our own option to turn from the darkness to the light, and to shelter below branches that are not only innocent but liberal, Who would expect that among grasses, the sweet pasture of innumerable kine, and in their larger forms, the source of corn, there is yet one to be found with the taint of poison in it; and that abreast of the lilies there is a flower freighted with death? Such, however, is the fact; and darnel and colchicum are but illustrations and prefigurements, in their respective provinces, of the mournful truth that comes out so strongly in the consideration of the yew. Not that the berries are poisonous, for these, though viscid and with no fine flavour to recommend them, are eaten with impunity; it is in the leaves that the hurtful juices are contained, after the same manner as in the laurel, the little plums produced by which are innocuous, though extract prepared from the leaves is speedily fatal. Probably it is in some measure from this poisonous quality that the yew has been so often associated with death and churchyards :
"Cheerless, unsocial plant, that loves to dwell Mid skulls and coffins, epitaphs and tombs."
Remember, however, that it is man who has placed it in such localities. Nature gives the yew a very different abiding-place from the cemetery; and rightly viewed and understood, perhaps the yew may prove after all, notwithstanding its possession of deadly sap, to be a tree that should contribute ideas rather of cheerfulness than of mourning. Upon rugged limestone scars and cliffs, where nothing else, save a little ivy, can establish anchorage, the yew is often seen clinging, as if bound to the rock with clamps of iron. Well-nigh flattened against the perpendicular face of the stone, and with the merest ledge or crevice for its feet, it holds itself unchanged for centuries, and is the most imposing picture nature affords of imperturbable endurance. So, too, upon many a remote hill-side, beaten and ravaged by tempests; exposure to the wrath of the elements seems congenial, and life in the midst of perils to be joy and strength. Once a year, at least, all evergreen trees are decked with light and pretty shades of verdure, indicating the flow of their annual tide of life; the yew, like the rest, is found changing with the seasons, and not only in the spring, but emphatically, when the fruit, looking as if wrought of ruby, crimsons before the last sunshine of the autumn. Instead of an emblem of death and sorrow, the yew should stand, therefore, as the representative of energy and the impregnable, and I cannot but think that some such view of its true significance must have actuated those who either laid the foundations of their churches and abbeys close to existing yews, or who having raised such buildings, then planted yewtrees close alongside. For what more sublime picture of the endurance of God's kingdom could be selected, or what emblem more exact of the immortality of man? To this day stand one or two of the old yews near which the founders of Fountains Abbey sat themselves down in rural council. Ages have passed away since the sound of vespers fell from those beautiful aisles upon the ear of the way farer who lingered to gather cowslips in the meads around, or to note the tender blue of the innumerable forget-me-not, or to mark the flow of the tranquil river and its darting fishes; everything is gone except the sweet and solemn requiem pronounced by ruin, everything except those grand old trees, which seem capable of witnessing the rise and fall of just such another fabric, were some architect to tempt them with renewal of the old magnificence.
It may be useful and practically good to deem the yew an emblem of death. We are taught here, as in a thousand other places, that it is better to deem it an emblem of the Changeless, that is to say, of Life. Nothing is lost and everything is gained by letting nature speak to us, whenever she will, of immortality. The lesson of death and decay is too plainly and too constantly recited to make it needful that we should go out of our way for illustrations; much more should we refrain from converting symbols that are inherently suggestive of good into emblems of what is only too familiar in its reality.
European Yew or Common Yew (Taxus baccata) An article from "The Trees Of Old England" continued...
European Yew or Common Yew (Taxus baccata)
Botanically considered, the yew holds a place in nature shared by only a small company. Plain and palpable as are the great classes and families into which plants are resolvable by men of science, every one of them a solar system, as it were, in miniature, certain grand ideas of structure constituting centres round which minor ones are disposed planet-wise, plain and palpable as are these great classes in regard to their centres and the mass of their elements, there are located upon the frontiers of all, without exception, certain curious forms which give a hand, so to speak, to either side. Just as whales link mammals to fishes, living in the ocean, like sharks and dolphins, yet suckling their offspring after the manner of female quadrupeds j just as bats connect mammals again with birds; and just as those comical little creatures, the armadillos, connect, still once more, the mammalia with the reptilian races; so among plants do certain strange organisms stand midway between the especially great and obvious classes, and constitute the bridges whereby all things are maintained as a unity. The Conifers, to which the members of the yew-tree family stand as a kind of appendix, have for one of their own ennobling functions this very duty of associating forms otherwise unconnected. The stems, the branches, the style of growth, the longevity, the beautiful timber of the yew, link it at once, and indisputably, to the foresters over which the cedar presides, and which are to oak and beeches just what opulent islands are to the adjacent continents. The flowers, on the other hand, point a different way, and when we take that curious Japanese member of the yew-tree group called the Salisburia, the leaves are, on a great scale, the leaflets of the maiden-hair fern ! No one examining the leaves of this remarkable tree, the Salwburict, could suppose otherwise than that they belonged to a fern; no one "looking at the substantial woody boughs, could have a moment's doubt that the tree conformed, so far, with the oak and walnut. The flowers of the yew itself are inconspicuous in the extreme. They come out early in spring, usually about March, and are so much hidden by the foliage as to be overlooked except by the curious interrogator. They are difficult, moreover, of dissection, and the two sexes, male and female, are produced upon different trees. Hence it is only upon certain individuals, or those which develop female flowers, that the characteristic red berries are to be discovered. In structure these pretty fruits are not very unlike the acorn of the oak, only that instead of a hard and woody cup, the receptacle is succulent and scarlet. That famous fruit of Australia which is described by lovers of the marvelous and by the ignorant as "a cherry with its stone upon the outside," is very nearly the same thing as the yew-tree berry, only produced by a different tree, and with the seed more protruded from the cup. Botanists call it Exocarpus.
The slow growth of the yew, being a part of its life-history, belongs, like the flowers, to the botanical idea of the plant. To this slowness of growth are chiefly owing the hardness and the smoothness of the wood, which for delicacy and beauty of colouring is also excelled by few, the box alone perhaps, presenting a surface of greater evenness and polish. Yew is the most esteemed of all our native woods for high-class turnery-work and for inlaying. It has the recommendation also of being rarely or never attacked by insects, guarded, like that of the lime and the Indian sandal-wood, by some native objectionableness. Sections, both horizontal and vertical, constitute truly beautiful objects for the parlour museum, and form an excellent nucleus for a collection of such things. "When so much time is devoted to "scrap-book" making and to stamp-collecting, useful up to a certain point as such pastimes may be, it seems a pity that as much leisure and activity should not be given to collections of wood-sections, which endure for ever, are beautiful and varied as seashells, and cost little more than the trouble of polishing. In bygone times the wood of the yew-tree was famous among archers, and it is curious to note that no less than three kings' of this country have lost their lives through its instrumentality. First, the ill-fated Harold, at the battle of Hastings; then "William Kufus, in the New Forest; thirdly, Richard Cceur de Lion, at Limoges. The battles of Crecy, Poictiers, and Agincourt, were won through the energy of the yew-tree bowmen, and perhaps the milder archery of the present day would be more success ful were the competitors to fall back upon the ancient material of their renowned instrument. The rings indicating age are in general very plainly seen in the yew, and form a striking illustration of the marvellous antiquity the tree is witness to. We often hear of "railway time" and of "side real time;" the yew-tree helps to enforce upon us the grandeur of the idea of "tree-time" The vast age attained by individuals is accompanied, as would be looked for, by 'commensurate bulk and girth. In the graveyard attached to Bucklaw church, about a mile from Dover, there is, or was until recently, a yew with a trunk of no less than 24 feet in circumference. In Tisbury churchyard, Dorsetshire, there is another, now quite hollow, with an entrance gate on one side, and measuring 37 feet in circumference; while in the churchyard of Fortingal, Perthshire, stand the remains of one which before the trunk fell in, and it became reduced to its present condition of little more than a shell, measured round about the incredible number of 56 feet. One of the most picturesque of our ancient yews ornaments the churchyard of Darley Dale, Derbyshire.
No mention of the yew is made in Scripture, though there is reason to believe that it anciently grew upon the mountains of Lebanon, if not there still, since the tree extends far into Central Asia. The Hebrew word<-eres, translated "cedar" in the authorized version, would seem to have been used, like many other botanical terms occurring in Holy Writ, in a wide and general sense, including not only the genuine cedar, Cedrus Libani, but other species of conifers suitable for building purposes, and likewise the yew. Among the relics discovered at Nineveh it is said that there are fragments of yewtree wood, declared to be such by the structure of the fibre, as seen under the microscope. Virgil used the name pinus, in one place at least, to signify timber-trees in general; and the well-known frugality of the ancients in regard to the names of flowers and fruits would seem to give additional weight to the opinion. Scarcely a dozen flowers are mentioned by the ancient poets, including those of the Holy Land. The rose, the lily, the violet, are spoken of; but in all these, and in all the rest, the same kind of collective idea seems intended When we read of the yew in the classical poets, it is in the same spirit of dread and disrelish that belongs to modern ones. Ovid, for example, selects this tree to mark the place of descent into Tartarus "Dismal yew shades the deep declining way that, through labyrinths of shade and horror, leads to Tartarus; languid Styx exhaling continual clouds."
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