All about yew…

For #treesquares today we’re back in The Cotswolds – Painswick, to be exact – on a cold and grey December day.

The church here dates back to the 1300’s, although there has been a church on this site since (at least) 1066 – although when you’re going back that far exact dates really don’t matter.

In the churchyard here are 99 yews trees – and yes, they’re all numbered. Legend has it that the devil won’t allow the 100th tree to grow and would pull any extra trees out. We did, however, find one tree without a number, so the devil must have been busy elsewhere.

It raises the question why there are often yew trees planted in churchyards (and, by extension, graveyards). This (naturally) sent me down a google rabbit hole to find the answer – or, as it turned out, the answers.

Pagans used yew trees as places of gathering and also worshipped the trees themselves. Drooping branches of old yew trees can root and form new trunks where they touch the ground, so the yew is associated with longevity, regeneration and fertility.

Given that most of the tree – the bark, the leaves, and the seeds – are highly poisonous to people (especially children) sheep, cattle, horses and other livestock, the yew was also associated with death. (Although, as a rather interesting aside, the toxic alkaloids in yew bark ae now used in cancer treatments.)

Shakespeare referred to this when he had Macbeth concoct a poisonous brew including “slips of yew, silvered in the moon’s eclipse”.

Continuing the theme of resurrection was the myth that Pontius Pilate was either born under or played under (the details are sketchy) under a rather famous yew at Glen Lyon in Scotland. The tree in question is (apparently) well over 2000 years old and would have been a landmark at the time of Roman occupation, so who knows?

Anyways, the yew came to symbolise death and resurrection in Celtic culture. And, as many early churches were built on ancient pagan places of worship, it follows that there’d be yews there. It was also an assimilation of the old and the new.

There’s also a belief that (and look away now if you’re a tad squeamish) that yews not only thrived on, well, cadavers, but also absorbed the vapours of decomposition. Eeeeeuw.

The more rational of explanations is a tad more boring – as rational explanations tend to be. Given the toxicity of the tree, what better way to dissuade common people from grazing their livestock on church land than to plant yews?

So, there you go, the random facts about yew trees you didn’t know you needed.

I’m linking up with Becky this month for her tree squares challenge where we post photos of trees, any trees, in square format. You’ll find Becky’s most recent post here.

Author: Jo

Author, baker, sunrise chaser

8 thoughts

  1. Wow, I didn’t know any of that Jo – thanks for going down that rabbit hole! What a cold wintry day it looks in those photos.

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