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Taxus baccata

Updated: Jun 2, 2022


An Easter weekend stroll in the nearby Leigh Woods led me to cross paths with a very large and girthy yew tree. Although many trees are medicinal due to their traditional uses and gentle actions in the body, yew owes its medicinal association to modern pharmaceuticals.

Yews are evergreens growing up to 20m and producing dense bundles of branches. The leaves are dark green and linear, with slightly acute apecies. They are known to grow across Europe and Britain, especially in chalky soil.

Although clearly belonging to the large group of non-flowering palnts (gymnosperms), there was some doubt as to whether they should be considered part of the conifer group, as they don't bear their seeds on the characteristic cone-like structure, like other members e.g. pines and spruces. However, genetic analysis has confirmed the position of the taxaceae in this order.

The red fruit-like structures are not fruit in the technical sense of the word. Unlike the swollen mesocarp of flowering plants, the red "berry" is an outgrowth of the seed itself and is technically referred to as an aril. However, its colour and flavour serve essentially the same purpose and encourage seed-dispersal via animals.

Interestingly, the arils are the only part of the plant that isn't toxic (including the seeds within), due to the lack of the harmful alkaloids that are abundant in the rest of the plant. These compounds are known as taxanes, named after the genus name. Taxol belongs to this group, and is used as anticancer drug due to its ability to inhibit mitosis in replicating cells. The wood of the yew was historically used to make bows and is famed for being the weapon of victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

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