Sombre Sentinels in Winter Green
Common Yew (Taxus baccata) or Iúr/Eo in Irish is an evergreen conifer which like another conifer, the Scot’s pine, is native to Ireland (1a). A mutant, upright, fastigate form of the yew is the Irish yew (Taxus baccata ‘Fastiagata’) the original of which was discovered in Florencecourt, Co. Fermanagh in 1767 (1b). The man who discovered two unusual upright seedlings was George Willis who presented one to Lord Mount Florence and kept one for himself. The one presented to the lord of the manor survived and still lives today; the one that George kept eventually died. All Irish yews are descended from cuttings which were taken from this unusual yew.
Common yews can grow to a height of 20 metres, but their usual height is 12 to 15 metres. They have a spreading habit unlike the Irish yew and because of the shade they cast nothing grows beneath them.
In February and March male flowers produce pollen which the wind carries to female flowers on another tree. The bright red fruits which form from this process are called arils (2). The seeds within these fruits are very poisonous and indeed every part of the tree is poisonous too. Birds such as blackbirds, mistle thrushes, song thrushes and fieldfares manage to eat the fruits allowing the seeds to pass through their bodies (3). These often grow into new trees. Squirrels eat the fruits but discard the seeds.
Yew trees are often associated with graveyards and holy places. They were a symbol of everlasting life because they could live to great ages. They were also used to mark the boundaries of churches. It is also believed they were planted in church grounds to prevent livestock from eating the leaves and getting poisoned (4).
Yews make excellent clipped hedges and provide shelter for birds (5a;5b).
Many placenames in Ireland are associated with the yew: Mayo from Maigh Eo (The Plain of the Yews); Youghal from Eochoill (Yewwood); Newry from an tIúr (The Yew); Knockanure from Cnoc an Iúir (Hill of the Yew); Terenure from Tír an Iúir (Land of the Yew Tree).