One of the 3 native evergreens of Great Britain, the yew is a type of conifer, although it bears red 'berries', or arils, instead of cones. It typically grows to about 15 - 28 m high, and can have a huge girth. It is widespread throughout Europe, North Africa and Asia. The yew is often found in dense woodland on chalk or limestone soils but it is also in common usage as a garden shrub. In fact it lends itself well to topiary and is the shrub of choice in mazes in the gardens of stately homes.
The wood of the yew tree is very durable and beautiful, being very pale with small knots, dark streaks and spots (called pepper). It is prized as a veneer and for use in making tool handles and furniture, but it is probably most famous for being used to make longbows. Indeed it has been suggested that if it were not for the invention of firearms the yew could well be now extinct!
Taxol and Taxotere are strong anti-cancer drugs. They start life as chemicals extracted from the bark of the Pacific yew and the European yew.
All parts of the tree, except the fleshy aril, are poisonous. Shakespeare made reference to this in a number of plays including Macbeth where it was used by the witches. Pliny the Elder noted that people died after drinking wine that had been casked in yew barrels.
Yew trees are often found growing in cemeteries because they are said to symbolise immortality. This is hardly surprising since the yew is one of the oldest types of tree in the world. There is a yew in Farringdon, Hampshire, which has a girth of 30 feet and is estimated to be 3000 years old, and others in Llangenyw, Discoed and Fortingale are perhaps 5000 years old. Even when the central trunk of the yew dies, it throws up new shoots from the roots in an ever expanding circle - another symbol of life-everlasting.
Since ancient times the yew was thought to be the protector of the dead and a guardian against evil spirits. It was often used in pagan rituals. Since many churches were built on the remains of pagan sites this might also explain their presence in churchyards.
The oldest known piece of wood is a spear made of yew. It is 250,000 years old and was found at Clacton in Essex.
The yew tree is the symbolic tree of the Fraser clan in Scotland. They believed it brought them good luck and warded off evil spirits.
In some parts it is known as 'The tree that kills twice' due to the poisonous nature, and the fact that bows were made from its wood. - thanks to stupot for this snippet
Respected English botanist and TV personality David Bellamy asked that every English parish should plant a yew tree, preferably in a churchyard, to commemorate the Millennium.