In the UK, there are three native conifers: the Juniper, the Scots Pine and the Yew (Taxus baccata). The genus Taxus contains some eight species, seven of which are found in the Northern Hemisphere.
The Yew is said to be slow growing and of great longevity. Some Yews (e.g. the Fortingall Yew in Argyllshire), are probably thousands of years old. Estimating the age of a Yew can be difficult as they develop hollow trunks; so dating by annual rings is next to impossible. These trunks may also fill with aerial roots that grow down from the crown.
Estimates suggest that when the tree is relatively young, it may increase in girth by about a foot every 30 years. So, a tree with a diameter of about 25 feet might be about 700 – 800 years old (see http://www.indigogroup.co.uk/edge/oldyews.htm). The girth of the Fortingall Yew was recorded as being some 56 feet in 1769 – so possibly how old?
The Yew tree, which is dioecious (that is, it has male and female forms), takes some 70 years to bear flowers or fruit. Female trees are most readily recognised when they bear their red fruits. The outer part of the fruit is a red, fleshy cup or aril, which attracts birds. The aril is the only part of the plant that is non-toxic. Within the fleshy aril is a hard brown nut, which is distributed by birds (it passes through their digestive system).
Because of the relatively slow growth of the tree, Yew was not planted in great numbers to form woodlands or plantations; though it has been used extensively as hedging. Millions of young yew trees have been planted in Yantai and Sichuan in China in the last few years to provide material for the extraction of the anti-cancer drug taxol/paclitaxel. The Yew that has been planted is a hybrid form - Taxus x media, which is thought to be a cross between T. baccata and T. cuspidata – the Japanese Yew.
For centuries, it was known that the seeds, leaves and bark of the Yew were poisonous to humans, cattle and horses so it is good that one of the chemicals is now being used as a phytomedicine to control/halt the proliferation of cancerous cells.
Other than this modern use, the Yew has served many functions and purposes over the millennia. The earliest known use is as a thrusting spear from the Hoxnian inter-glacial period, which is many hundreds of thousands of years ago! The burial ship at Sutton Hoo contained a Yew bucket; and the wood was much favoured in Norman times for the making of long bows. Its use in bow making may pre-date this by some thousands of years as evidenced by the ‘Ice Man’ found in the Alps. It has been, and is still used, in furniture making and is much favoured by wood turners. Its water resistant qualities mean that it has been used for house foundations in places like Venice.
Yew is to be found naturally on many soil types, though it is perhaps more common on chalk in the south east and limestone in the north. It is also found in the shade of oak woodlands, and during the last 300 years it has been widely planted in parks and gardens. Ancient or veteran trees are often associated with church-yards and have been connected with other sacred places.