Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Yew: Tree of Death...wood grain to die for

In the USA, we tend to think of yew as a shrub. I have a few in the landscaping around my house. Actually, these are probably a dwarf variety of Japanese Yew. In Europe, especially the United Kingdom, the yew grows as a tree, and has been growing there for thousands of years. The 5000 year old “Ice Man” mummy discovered in the Alps, had a bow and an axe handle made of yew wood. The yew tree is ancient, magical and mystical. It is probably the most interesting tree type on the planet.

The botanical name for the yew tree is taxus baccata. The Latin word taxus is from the Greek “taxon” which means “bow”. For millenniums, yew wood has been used for long bows, and still is today. Most parts of the yew tree are poisonous and thus it is often called the “Tree of Death”. Shakespeare acknowledged yew as a poison in both Macbeth and Hamlet.  In mythology and Celtic tradition, the yew is associated with dark goddesses. It is the tree of winter. Go to any New Age, Celtic folklore or Wicca website and you will find enormous amounts of information on the mystical nature of the yew tree. One very informative one is White Dragon.
Tree of death, but also a tree associated with rebirth since the yew sends up new shoots from its roots.  This may be why, throughout the British Isles, old yew trees are found in grave yards near churches.  The interesting fact is that, in most cases, the old yew tree near an ancient church predates the church itself.  In many cases, the trees are older than the date that Christianity was introduced to the region.  Some have recently been scientifically verified to be over 2,000 years old.  It is believed that the early Christian churches and cemeteries were built on the site of old Celtic holy places and burial grounds where the sacred yew tree already existed.

Box in yew wood by James Baxendale
The wood from the yew tree is known for its beautiful grain patterns.  Even though it is classified as an evergreen, yew wood is very dense and hard.  The tree grows very slowly and has tight growth rings.  Objects made out of yew wood have a naturally hard and smooth finish.  A lot of sanding with fine grit sandpaper is often unnecessary.

Artwork in yew wood by Edric Florence

My own pocket boxes with compass made out of yew wood
There is so much to write about the yew tree that I could fill volumes.  For instance: It is a fact that a new cancer curing drug called Taxol has been derived from the bark and berries of the yew tree (Tree of Death or Tree of Life?).  Or the fact that, even though vast yew forests once covered many parts of ancient Europe, the yew is an endangered species today.  Then there are the pictures by Archie Miles, who is on a quest to photograph all the spectacular and interesting trees of Britain, including many yews. You will enjoy his website.

Photo of yew wood grain by Archie Miles


Anonymous said...

Nice blog post. It is very interesting. I think i will do some wikipedia research on yew now. I especially like the turned vase(?). One question. in the captions you write hew and in the article you write Yew. Is that a typo, or is it some nomenclature rule or something?

John M. Casteline said...

Boy, Everybody is an editor! :-)
It's a spelling mistake, OK?

Anonymous said...

I was thinking it was from the same ancient root of the word hewn or something... if I had known it was a typo I would have been more delicate.... heheheheh. By the way, at work we use Instant Messaging a lot now and there is no longer the email system safety net for spellchecking... my typing is atrocious. Did I spell that word right?

Anonymous said...

Yew two are too funny...and ask Tim about the autospell feature on his phone...changed his e-mail from casting a fly-line to casting a "feline"...LOL, right?


Anonymous said...

Nice article and beautiful work in the pictures. Thanks for publishing, happy carpentry :)