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Taxus baccata, popularly known as the yew tree, is an evergreen tree or shrub with thick, dark green foliage. Its spreading branches are covered with linear leaves with grayish or yellowish-green undersides. Yew wood is fine-grained, solid, and heavy, making it a perfect material for furniture, cabinets, and other types of woodwork.
The yew tree has long been considered sacred and associated with mystical beliefs. Read on to learn more about what it means and represents across various contexts and cultures.
What Are Yew Trees?
Yew trees are ornamental shrubs that are native to southwest Asia, northwest Africa, and certain areas of Europe. Most parts of yew trees are highly poisonous because they contain an alkaloid. This substance can be fatal to livestock, so it’s not usually grown in areas where chickens, cows, and other animals are cared for.
This hardy tree can grow up to 92 feet tall and is moderately resistant to most pests. While its bark is distinctively thin and scaly, its seed cones have a fleshy scale that grows into soft, berry-like structures called arils. While the seeds themselves are not edible as they are bitter and poisonous, some bird species like greenfinches and hawfinches love feasting on its sweet-tasting and gelatinous arils.
A yew tree can reach up to 600 years, with some specimens even living longer than their average lifespan. In fact, it is said that Britain has some yew trees that surprisingly predate the 10th century. Although it is impossible to come up with the exact age of these ancient trees because of how their boughs become hollow as they age, yews are generally known for their longevity because they can split during advanced growth without becoming infected with any disease. Their base can also produce basal shoots regardless of how old they get.
Yew Tree Symbolism
Now that you know more about what yew trees are, it will be easier to understand why people have grown to associate them with certain meanings. Here are some of the most common interpretations of yew trees.
- Eternal Life and Rebirth – Since yew trees have extraordinarily long lives, people have grown to associate them with everlasting life and vitality. Yews are some of the oldest trees in the world, making people think that they are perfect representations of being able to adapt to changes and survive difficult times. In addition, their extremely robust nature makes them a perfect symbol of vitality, often amazing people with their ability to survive even when their trunk dies.
- Change and Transformation – The unique ability of yews to change their shape over time makes them reminiscent of a period of transformation. Multiple yews can eventually come together and form one yew tree, with its branches forming a tunnel-like structure. The way a yew tree takes full control of its form and responds to changes around it makes them a perfect symbol of experiencing prosperity after a period of transformation.
- Perseverance and Achievement – Since yews can survive even the toughest of conditions, they have come to become symbols of perseverance and hard work. As people continue fighting amidst overwhelming odds, they grow stronger with each battle and become braver and strong-willed than they ever were.
- Protection from Evil – Some say that yews also can protect people from evil forces. This stems from how yews can eventually develop thick trunks and branches that are imagined to shield people from all kinds of evil and negative thoughts. Others even claim that when you dream of a yew tree it is a sign that you will be successfully able to protect yourself from various obstacles that are coming your way. Green Man Oracle cards use yews to symbolize perseverance, suggesting that anyone who works hard will most likely achieve their goals.
- Power and Strength – Yews are often used as symbols of immense strength. A yew has tree has a distinct ability to regenerate and heal itself. When one of its branches becomes weak, it does not affect the other parts of the plant so it could easily survive and grow new ones. These deciduous and evergreen plants also depict power because they have strong inner parts that represent one’s inner strength.
- Duality of Life and Death – While a yew tree is almost often associated with eternal life, some regard it as a tree of death because of its highly poisonous properties. This makes it a perfect symbol of the dual nature of life, which may also be why it was linked to a period of transformation and rebirth in another world.
Uses of Yew Trees
Yew trees are traditionally found in churchyards of countries like France, Ireland, England, and Scotland. While yew trees are known for their ability to grow exceptionally large, the yews in La Haye-de-Routot are truly fascinating. It is said that 40 people could easily fit inside one of its trees. They can also grow up for thousands of years, making them a popular choice in gardens and walkways of churches, monasteries, and other religious sites. This amazing quality has led people to consider it sacred, believing that their long lives are comparable to eternal life.
However, some also associate yew trees with death because of their poisonous quality. Since their poisonous foliage can be fatal to livestock, some say yews were planted in religious sites to discourage farmers from letting their herd wander into burial grounds. In addition, their branches and fronds are sometimes used during Palm Sunday when palm branches are not available.
Aside from their wide use in religious sites, yews are also known for their medicinal properties. Since time immemorial, people have used their bark, needles, and branches to make medicine. It has been traditionally used to treat illnesses like tonsillitis, rheumatism, urinary tract infections, and even seizures. However, the use of yew for these conditions is not approved by the FDA, as its consumption is unsafe for most people. There is not much evidence available to prove that yew trees are effective for these health conditions as well.
However, pharmaceutical companies use the bark of yew trees to manufacture Taxol, a drug that is used for ovarian and breast cancer. They make yew safe for human consumption by extracting nothing but paclitaxel and leaving its poisonous properties behind.
Yews have been around for many years, surprising people with their somewhat mysterious and intriguing capability to withstand the test of time. The next time you come across or dream of one, you may want to think of it as a positive sign. While it’s true that it could imply the beginning of a challenging period in your life, it also means that you’ll be able to power through all those obstacles and become a much better person in the end.