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Yew Trees

Yew Trees

Cemeteries and graveyards are, somewhat paradoxically, important refuges for life, as these are often the least disturbed spaces in towns and villages. If left uncut, grasslands begin to flower as meadows, trees provide fruit and shelter for birds and sometimes the decorative flowers can be a source of food for insects. The tall dark yew trees that cast long shadows on headstones around Ireland have an interesting history with burial sites. With highly poisonous leaves and fruit (but not to birds, who can’t digest the toxic seed coat), the Irish yew, characterised by it’s tall flame-like shape, has been planted around churchyards of the British Isles to deter commoners from grazing livestock in the area and to “purify” the site. Coincidentally, whether they ward off evil spirits or not, yew trees are “allelopathic” and release chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants that grow near them. 

Fun fact: The Latin name for yew, Taxus baccata, comes from the Greek for bow, “taxon”, as it’s flexible wood was used to make the weapon and it’s arrows. Much later, the yew wood was used in Ireland to make wine barrels, giving it another grave name - the coffin of the vine.