Discover The Remarkable History Of Yew Trees

Fred Hageneder is one of the founder members of the Ancient Yew Group and has authored books about the fascinating trees, which can live for thousands of years.

Over the centuries, yews have been linked to religion, legend and mythology and they have symbolised both birth and death. Yew trees have been felled to create weapons of war and more recently they’ve been used to save the lives of cancer patients

Fred says were lucky to have many fine examples in the Shaftesbury area. “Dorset has about 104 sites with ancient or veteran yew trees. It’s a great county for yews,” said Fred. On Thursday 6th September Fred will talk about yews at the Springhead Trust in Fontmell Magna.

“The ancient yew trees of Britain are the oldest trees in Europe. A few hundred of these have survived in many different sites, mostly in churchyards. And you’ll find them across the southern bit of Britain, from Kent to Dorset, Devon and up to South Wales. Dorset is right in the middle – the heartland,” he said.

Fred says that there are many interesting examples just across the border in Wiltshire. “There are places like the Fonthill Estate and Wardour woodland. There’s the famous yew at Tisbury, too” said Fred. “It has its concrete filling from the last century. They were not aware then that hollowing is not a problem for the trees. It’s physics. A hollow tube can take more tension and is more flexible than a steady cylinder.”

“That is the main misunderstanding about yew trees,” Fred continued. “We, as the Ancient Yew Group, are fighting this. Some people who are in charge in parks or churchwardens think that an old decaying hollowing tree is on the way out and is dying. That is very wrong. That is when your trees start a new lease of life by renewing themselves from the inside out. I will be talking about this in my presentation,” said Fred.

“The yew in Tisbury had been mistaken for dying so somebody thought ‘let’s brick it up and concrete it’. That doesn’t help the tree at all. But luckily, it still survived and will be with us for a long time,” Fred said.

The Shaston Yew in Shaftesbury’s Bury Litton

Despite the concrete, Fred says the Tisbury yew tree is a ‘wonderful, impressive example’. “Just think about the time it must have taken to create such an impressive girth. As a rule of thumb, a yew tree will grow at half the speed of any other tree in Britain. The hollowing out is a process of centuries.”

So why do yew trees live so long? Are they more resilient than other trees? “That is one of their primaeval features. From seedling stage they invest into the root system. They are not about joining the race for more light or more nutrients. They take it easy and they take it slow. That is a recipe for long life,” explained Fred. “All trees die because they outgrow themselves. There comes a point when you cannot produce more water pipelines within the trunk to bring up nutrients to feed the crown, so the crown keeps growing and the root system can’t keep up with the pace. Then the tree becomes old, starts decaying and dies. At that point, the yew tree can shed branches, which freaks people out. They think it is becoming dangerous. In fact, they can be amongst the slowest growing wooded plants on earth.”

Fred says yew trees have another secret. “They have an incredible ability of renewing themselves from the inside-out by creating interior growth. A new trunk grows inside the old hollow trunk and the old trunk will fall away. Then you have a new yew tree there.”

But because yew trees regenerate, it makes it difficult to identify their age. “There’s a lot of discussion about it. Many places would like to say they have a 1,000 year-old yew tree. It’s a badge of honour, an emotional thing. We want something that is older than us. We want it to be at least 1,000 years old. A tree is not worth any less if it is only 950 years old.”

Yew trees in Britain are most regularly found around churchyards. Fred says there is a simple reason for this. It’s down to history and warfare. “Many old trees have survived in church yards because of our carnivorous mentality in Europe. We extract anything we can make money with from nature.

“The yew tree has a dark chapter in its cultural history. The mediaeval longbow was a killing machine and caused the death of millions of yew trees across Europe. The English army had a contingent of 5,000 to 7,000 archers and they had to keep practising with yew bows all year round for 300 years. You can do the maths. No freestanding yew tree in woodland survived that. Yew trees in churchyards were protected. No vicar in their right mind would say that they were growing yew trees for armaments. Also, British churchyard yew trees have this wonderful, gnarly, twisted way of growing. It makes them look like fairytale trees. That’s not very good for people looking for weapons-making material.”

Fred says there’s a lot of folklore and mythology connected with yew trees. “Worldwide actually, because yew trees grow around the northern hemisphere. You have mythology from many different cultures, across different ages. The intriguing thing is that they all point to the same themes. There’s death – the graveyard yew is the protector of the passage of the human soul to the other world. That idea is not just Christian. It can be found in Japan, in Shinto, and in other Buddhist religions. It can be found amongst Native Americans in Canada and the USA. There is also connection with birth. Many of the ancient goddesses are associated with the yew tree as goddesses of birth or patrons of midwifery.”

There are also connections between yew trees and medicine. One of the significant links is a more recent discovery. “The most intriguing one relates to cancer cures. In 1964 a compound in the yew bark was found to be an anti-tumour agent. After 30 years of laboratory and clinical trials, Taxol and Taxotere were approved as chemotherapy drugs for mainly breast cancer and small-cell lung cancer. They revolutionised that field. The pharmaceutical trade depleted all American yew woods and many in Asia. Again, this is another disaster for yew trees, which makes Britain a very unique ‘Noah’s Ark’,” said Fred.

“The yew is not in danger worldwide, because there are many different varieties growing in parks and gardens. But the yew tree is a very good example of how a single tree species can play a huge role in in human history.”

Fred Hageneder’s talk, The Remarkable Yew Tree, takes place at 7.30pm on Thursday 6th September at the Springhead Trust in Fontmell Magna. Tickets are £8 and include a glass of wine or another drink. You can book by calling (01747) 811853 or at ticketsource.co.uk.