It is no wonder that Harry Potter’s nemesis, Lord Voldemort, chose a magic wand made with wood from the yew tree. This ancient species of England is the symbol of life and death, but also resurrection and longevity. Some old specimens still living in the countryside date back to the Bronze Age.

What makes the yew unique is that it can regenerate. These millennia-old fellows are often hollow at the core, with new trees springing up from the root all around the parent. This ability is rare among conifers, which sets the yew apart. Science tells us there is no reason a yew tree should ever die, for they aren’t afflicted by disease and will heal from just about any wound.

In England where the oldest yew trees can be found, they most often stand among the graveyards of ancient Norman churches. It’s not uncommon to find old Celtic standing stones there either. Both tree and Celtic stones predate the churches, illustrating how Christianity chose the very same sites for their holy places.

But Robert Turner tells us in his 1664 work, ‘‘Botanologia,’’ that there was a more practical reason for yews among the graves. ‘‘The Yew is hot and dry, having such attraction that if planted near a place subject to poisonous vapors, its very branches will draw and imbibe them. For this reason it was planted in churchyards, and commonly on the west side, which was at one time considered full of putrefaction and gross oleaginous gasses exhausted from the graves by the setting sun. These gasses, or will-o’-the’wisps, divers have seen, and believed them dead bodies walking abroad.’’

Perhaps these gasses of decomposition also known as corpse candles emitted from overpacked graveyards contributed to the ghostly folklore of the yew. The marked absence from pastures explains why yew was so important to Voldemort. The trees bear notoriously poisonous foliage and seeds. During the Gallic Wars, Romans witnessed cultivators of the yew trees commit suicide with ex arboribus taxeis, yew tree poison rather than submit to conquerors. Those trees growing too near pastures can quickly kill livestock that browse its branches.



This English yew is Taxus baccata, a species native also to Europe. It has another historic link to death. The famous English longbow proved to be the first long range personal weapon that changed medieval warfare forever. These bows were constructed with a combination of yew heartwood for compressive strength and the sapwood for elasticity. With its hard oak arrows, an archer could fell a fully armored knight at two hundred yards with a single shot. Thus the power of the yew stave bow brought death to thousands.

In addition to its fascinating history, the English yew makes a beautiful landscape plant. It can be found in great gardens of the Old World and many American ones as well. Over 200 varieties are known offering a wide range of size and form. The yew is a popular subject for topiary in English gardens and can be found throughout the United Kingdom.

The most popular form is Irish, named ’Fastigiata’’ for its tall narrow form. It’s popular for creating a series of vertical elements at the back of mixed borders. Pairs of them are often found flanking entries to old estates or the front of a house.

We have only scratched the surface of what makes the yew such a fascinating plant. Learn more about its life, death and resurrection at Ancient Yew Group’s Web site http://www.ancient-yew.org. This group’s efforts to find, document and protect ancient yews of England has resulted in a treasure trove of pictures and articles. Few other trees have witnessed the ancient Britons, coming of the Romans, the arrival of Christianity, rise of the British Empire and a walk on the moon, all in one lifetime.

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of ‘‘Weekend Gardening’’ on DIY Network. Contact her at her Web site www.moplants.com or visit www.diynetwork.com.)

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