The Yew lacks the graceful proportions of most
of our trees, but it has for compensation a most
obvious air of strength and endurance.
Many people see in cathedral aisles the reproduction
in stone of the pine-forest or the beech-wood.
Standing before an ancient Yew they may see whence
came the idea for those clustered columns. They
actually exist in the bole of the Yew, which presents
the appearance not of a single trunk, but of several
trunks that have coalesced. This condition is
due to the Yew continually pushing out new shoots
from the lower part of its bole, which take an
upright direction, and coalesce with the old wood.
Although the Yew is a large tree, it is by no
means a tall tree; the height of full-grown Yews
in this country ranging between fifteen and fifty
feet, although they are said to attain a greater
length in India.
The bole of the Yew is short but massive, covered
with thin red bark that flakes off in patches
much after the manner of Plane-bark. Large specimens
have a girth of from twenty-five to fifty feet
– or even more. Such a circumference represents
the growth of many centuries, for the annual growth
rings are very thin. It is this very slow growth
that produces the hard, compact and elastic wood
that was so highly esteemed in the past. Not only
is the timber elastic, but it is exceedingly durable,
so that it is said, ‘A post of Yew will
outlast a post of iron’. Its branches start
from the trunk at only a few feet from the ground,
and taking an almost horizontal direction, throw
out a great number of leafy twigs, which provide
a dense and extensive shade. The leaves are leathery
in texture, curved somewhat after the manner of
a reaping hook, shiny and dark above, pale and
The Yew is a diæcious tree – that
is, one whose male and female blossoms are borne
on separate trees – but the statement requires
qualification to this extent, that occasionally
a tree will be found bearing a branch or branches
whose flowers are part of the sex opposite to
those covering the greater part of the tree.
The male flower is almost round, a quarter of
an inch across, and contains about half a dozen
yellow anthers, the base surrounded by dry overlapping
scales. They may be found during February and
March, in profusion on the underside of the boughs.
The female flower is much smaller, and consists
of a fleshy disk with a few scales at its base,
and on this stands a single seed-egg.
Much has been said and written as to the toxic
properties of Yew-leaves, and it appears that
if eaten in large quantities they will prove fatal
to man, cattle, horses, sheep, pigs, and possibly
other animals, but small quantities of the leaves
are usually harmless.
Along the chalk range of which the celebrated
Box Hill forms part will be found many fine examples
of the Yew, as at Cherkley Court, near Leatherhead,
where there is an actual Yew forest.
It is reputed to be the longest-lived of all trees.
It is naturally a tree of the uplands and lower
hills, and shows a distinct preference for soils
that contain plenty of lime.
The Irish Yew (Var. fastigiata) differs from the
type in having all its branches growing erectly,
after the manner of a Lombardy Poplar, and in
the leaves being scattered promiscuously over
the branchlets instead of being in two regular
rows. It attains a height of twenty to thirty-five