This in-depth article explores in comprehensive detail a particular aspect to the yew’s botanical history touched upon in the Arboricultural Association online webinar – Understanding the Yew (24th March 2021).
When we see ancient yews of exceptional age, size and form they rightly impress us for all those reasons and especially in a typical modern mindset of ‘bigger means better’. Here are a few examples of such magnificent yews in Scotland.
But what about yew which are decades old, or one, or a few centuries old – the extant yew heritage of juvenile and mature yews containing the ancient yews of the centuries to come. Which they will become in all probability – if they are respected, protected and preserved accordingly.
We know that a natural life for a yew in the UK today can become exceptionally ancient and reach 1,500 years for sure and perhaps 2.000, even a few centuries more than that. But do these juvenile and mature yews also have a quality about them which is also ancient, despite their chronological age, and which they share with the oldest yew trees living today. The answer is yes, they do. And here is the reason why:
“Many communities hold a small number of living fossils coelacanths; (Latimeria Chalumnae) and yew trees (Taxus baccatus).”
A. Henderson and A. E. Mugguran; Commonness and Rarity
When we imagine a fossil, what typically springs to mind is something which has been dead for tens or hundreds of millions of years and encased in stone. We do not normally think that whatever created these fossils, by their very nature, can still be found alive and virtually unchanged today, tens or sometimes hundreds, of millions of years later as living fossils. Surely that would be something rather miraculous.
The yew species of Taxus via Paleotaxus Rediviva is found in the fossil record formed 201 million years ago and was discovered in limestone in modern Germany. Let us put this time scale of 201 million years in some perspective. At that time on Earth, the super-continent called Pangea was the only continent. Therefore, the yew has witnessed all the geological changes since – from a single super-continental land mass to the position the continents are in today. Let that sink in for a moment, how far the yew has travelled across the globe for the last 200 million years.
The circle highlights the geographical region where the yew fossil was found in modern Germany and assumes a wider habitat for Paleotaxus rediviva occupying most of the highlighted area at that time… But there is something very curious if we look closer at the world from so long ago.
It is reasonable to speculate that the yew grew in this area as it was at that time given the relatively close geographical proximity of the modern fossil find. Therefore, when we see a yew in Britain today, whether of natural or planted origin, they are all descendants of a population which has been here on this part of Earth (whenever growing conditions have allowed) for certainly 201 million years. On those grounds it is fair to say and appreciate that the yew is truly a native species to this part of the planet. It is much more so than we are in comparison.
201 million years is a number which rolls easily off the tongue but is an exceptionally long time to conceptualise, and then consider what has happened on planet Earth during such an immense time span. And this is where, from the perspective of the yew, it becomes astonishing. Looking at a chronicle of major historical events to try and understand the life of an individual yew, what it has lived through at its location for however many centuries, is fascinating enough. To expand that to the ancestry of Taxus as a species is something else entirely. If we examine the period of 201 million years ago to the present, something becomes quite clear. It is a genuine miracle and against mighty odds indeed that there are any yews on the Earth today. These are the major and minor extinction events it has survived (1):
- Carnial Pluvial Event (possible) 230 million years ago
- Triassic-Jurassic 201 million years ago
- Toarcian Turnover 183 million years ago
- Jurassic age ending 145 million years ago
- Aptian extinction 117 million years ago
- Cenomanian – Turonian boundary event 94 million years ago
- KT Boundary extinction 65 or 66 million years ago
- Eocene – Oligacene 33.9 million years ago
- Middle Miocene disruption 14.5 million years ago
- Pliocene – Pleistocene boundary 2 million years ago
- Quaternary extinction event 640,000 years ago
- Quaternary extinction event 74,000 years ago
- Quaternary extinction event 12,000 years ago
- Holocene, circa 10,000 BC to present
- Taxus is in the 0.1% of known species to have survived all the above events.
To be within the 0.1% of survivors of known species, Taxus witnessed the entire Jurassic Age, also known as the Age of Reptiles. It began circa 200 million years ago after the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event which gave reptiles the evolutionary opportunity to become dominant for eons upon a massively changed planet. It lasted until 145 million years ago (for 56 million years) when the Cretaceous period commenced. There were two more extinction events during the Jurassic; one early on and another at the end. Neither of these global catastrophes is considered severe enough to count amongst the so-called ‘Big Five’ mass extinction events. Two of the Big Five occurred before Paleotaxus Rediviva is seen in the fossil record and one around the same time at the Triassic-Jurassic boundary. Unless the yew suddenly sprang into existence around 201 million years ago, at the end of the Triassic, it implies some ancestry within the Triassic which survived the cataclysm.
It is estimated that 70 – 75% of species were wiped out when the Triassic ended. Around 50 million years before it began, circa 252 million years ago, the Permian-Triassic boundary was marked by a 90- 95% extinction rate. The last of the Big Five, circa 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous period, popularly known as the KT Boundary event saw the extinction of 75% of all known species.
From at least 201 million years ago to 65 million years ago, the yew had already witnessed countless species lost to oblivion in major and ‘minor’ mass extinction events. We can also consider what additional traumas have affected Earth in the last 65 million years since the KT Boundary and bring that to as recent as around 12,000 years ago; when human life as well as so much else, was decimated in the catastrophes contributing to the abrupt end stages of the last Ice Age and the resulting global extinction of the megafauna, such as the mammoth.
Yet for reasons we can only wonder at in genuine, jaw-dropping awe, the yew has survived everything that has happened upon Earth for at least 200 million years. Whether caused by Earth’s climate changing abruptly, for example caused by super volcano eruptions, or by impacts from asteroids or bombardments by comets, no matter what challenges the yew has faced to survive, Earth’s natural history shows it has survived. Not just once, or twice but time after time after time. No matter how cold, hot, wet or dry the planet has been for 200 million years, the yew has been here, somewhere, throughout all that time.
How can it be anything else other than a ‘Tree of Life’; surviving as it has such unimaginable episodes of death, destruction and chaos when so much, and so many, did not. Obviously, the yew has witnessed all human evolution – as well as the appearance of deciduous trees and most flowering plants. In terms of our human experience of life on this planet, the yew has ‘always been here’ somewhere. In other words, we do not know a world without the yew in it. But the yew knew a world for hundreds of millions of years without us and our ancestors in it. Hence the yew has experience of existence upon this planet we genuinely cannot imagine. It is literally the case that the yew has ‘seen it all’ for over 200 million years and seen most of all of it come and go, never to be seen again.
We can also bear in mind that these extinction events of whatever magnitude relate to known species. It is estimated that only 5% of species have left a fossil record, and so who knows how many more species have vanished and we will never know they existed? That could make that survival rate of 0.1% overestimated, could it even be as low as 0.01%? What is clear is that the yew is a sensational survivor, and it is a genuine and undeniable miracle the yew is here at all. Nature, it seems, must have a particular penchant for ensuring that there are yew trees somewhere on planet Earth ‘no matter what’ at any given time, indeed at all times in over 200 million years.
The only problem for its continued survival is another and ongoing extinction event, the Holocene beginning 12,000 years ago to the present and is the result of human activity. Since around 6.000 years ago and the advent of the Neolithic the yew had re-established itself in Britain around 2,000 years before, as part of the post-glacial treescape and wildwood. Since then loss of post glacial yew populations has permanently increased. By the beginning of the 17th century in most areas of continental Europe extinctions of natural local yew populations had occurred in the previous 500 years. This was to service the lucrative military longbow trade and to a much lesser extent crossbow manufacture (see article the Tree of the Bow).
In the last 50 years yews have been decimated in North Western America, China, and in many Himalayan regions such as Bhutan due to demand from the pharmaceutical industry. This has caused extinctions in many regions in what has been the blink of an eye and has involved killing millions of yews globally (see article Leaves of the Tree). The yew has never had to face being depleted in their millions by non-natural events – the greatest threat to them is not what the Earth or the Cosmos can do to them but what we have done and do to these living fossils.
With the benefit of computer modelling, CGI, Hollywood blockbuster films and scientific documentaries, we can actively envisage the extent of massive earthquakes, extreme volcanism, huge tsunamis, crust displacement and continental plate tectonics and the chaos and threat to all life they can cause. We can create a virtual asteroid or meteor strike and see the terrifying apocalyptic consequences of global conflagrations or giant waves sweeping all before them. We know the after-effects of a variety of global cataclysms made air, earth and water toxic for centuries and sometimes millennia. Sunlight being blotted out by atmospheric dust for similar periods of time meant plant growth was devastated and plants are the basis of the food chain. Huge and sudden plunges in temperature created un-survivable environments for many plants.
How then has the yew survived such conditions to feed and breed time and time and time again? To continue the species when at least 99.9% of life we know that the yew has shared the land with, have not over the same span of time? How many times has the yew spread from pockets of survivors of apocalyptic events to repopulate so many areas of Earth mainly in the northern hemisphere? And if something wiped out all humans on Earth, would it do the same again? The highly probable answer is yes.
Strangely enough there is an allusion to the yew truly possessing unique survival capabilities and possessing ‘eternal life’ in Norse cosmology, a cosmology with strong roots in the British Isles due to the Vikings and the Normans. It involves the ending of an age of the world called Ragnarok. In this cyclic cataclysm ‘all’ life is destroyed, even the gods and goddesses die yet there is a survivor (or rather 3 as we shall see) – including the World Tree called Yggdrasil. The trunk of the tree is the cosmic axis linking nine worlds stretching from the Earth’s underworld to the Pole Star and, in effect, the centre of the galaxy. Amongst the nine realms Yggdrasil oversees, we occupy Midgard or Middle Earth. As the fires and earth-shattering effects of Ragnarok come raging from the south it consumes all life before it, yet Yggdrasil shelters a woman and a man in its hollow until Ragnarok is over and they can emerge to repopulate the Earth. The Biblical figure of Noah and his family were essentially sheltered in a hollow wooden vessel until they could do the same.
However, Yggdrasil’s identity is not mythical, Norse literature clearly confirms time and time again that it is the yew and not the ash as is popularly and mistakenly repeated (2). And to emphasise the importance of the yew in Norse cosmology, in the system of magical characters known as the runes, only the yew has two runes attributed to it, clearly marking a distinction afforded to nothing else in that writing system. And the secret of the runes themselves were only obtained by the god Odin after enduring a tortuous shamanic experience being ‘hung’ upon Yggdrasil for ‘nine days and nights’ and pierced with a spear. When carved into wood with the sharp point of a dagger, the incisions resemble a yew needle.
The yew runes Eihwaz (left) and Yr (right).
Eihwaz means the axis or process of spiritual becoming where the Upper and Lower worlds meet in Midgard and is the rune of the mysteries of life and death. Yr alludes to ‘transformation’ which is what happened in the experience of Odin with Yggdrasil.
It is impossible for us today to truly perceive what the distant ancestral, common human bonds with the living fossils of yew trees were, that is, without having meaningful personal experience as those ancestors did. When the yew was perceptually more ‘alive’ to them in their animist cosmology than to us. Whether it was purely material experience when yew was used for spears, digging sticks and bows or spiritual when magical objects – again spears – were made from yew, as recorded in the Irish Gaelic legend of the sons of Tuirenn:
“Small the esteem of any spear with Pisear (king of Persia)
The battles of foes are broken;
No oppression to Pisear;
Everyone whom he wounds.
A yew – tree, the finest of the wood,
It is called King without opposition.
May that splendid shaft drive on
Yon crowd into their wounds of death.” (3)
Robin Hood would not be the legendary figure of an archer without having the fundamental aspect of yew wood being such a necessity in the existence of his legendary and talismanic longbow. We must also bear in mind ancient cosmology was far and fundamentally different to that prevalent in the modern Western world; to the ancients and indeed in modern Japanese Shinto and Buddhist religions the yew has a ‘soul’. That was also the case in the days of medieval Christianity. But we do not perceive yews as having ‘souls’ today. Yet, it is surely fair to say, our ancestral experiences of yew trees must still resonate within us somewhere; buried in our race memory via inherited DNA.
However, beginning in the post Roman Christian and later Protestant and Industrial periods, we have increasingly been culturally and spiritually disassociated from resonating with yews in ways our ancestors experienced. The land grabs of the Enclosure Acts in the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain suddenly made many yews sites no longer common property and suddenly at the whim of the new landowner as to whether they survived or not when field expansion began in earnest and rows of trees were lost. Incoming Roman Christianity appropriating ancient sacred sites meant that many which became churchyards enclosed the yew for Christians only. Imagine today if a new religion arrived in Britain and Christianity became an outlawed belief with churchyards banned to Christians, and no chance any more of being buried in a churchyard blessed by the presence of the yew near the church. What psychological shock and trauma that would cause, the outlawing of one’s God virtually overnight. And that is exactly what happened – the result of the increasing intolerance of Roman and consequent Protestant Christianity towards indigenous ancient spiritual cosmologies. Yet both continued to protect and plant yews in their most sacred places as well as outside their homes and continued the ancient pre – Christian tradition involving the obvious metaphysical links with yews trees.
The ancient ancestral human relationship with yews is clearly apparent in sacred names for, and spiritual association with, the yew and the innate reverence for sacred places where yews lived. (see article What’s in a Name?) Places where spiritually inclined people settled with yews already living there, such as significant sites of the Cistercian monks or Celtic saints. Or once settled they planted yews and the examples of this in ancient churchyards particularly involving early Christianity is ubiquitous throughout Britain.
A reasonable question to ponder is could this gradual damaging of such an inherent connection to yew trees have possibly left wounds in our collective psyche we are unaware of today? Has it, indeed, left a spiritual trauma due to us being almost completely severed from the experience and meaning of the ancient ‘Tree of Life’? Are there only the slenderest and most vulnerable of connections still left; given the depletion of the British ancient yew population over recent millennia to the remnant it is today. The gradual separation of our awareness and everyday experience of yews, has widened over recent centuries into an abyss. This divide, most of all, involves separation from the spiritual – the meaningful – aspects of our ancestral relationship with this ‘living fossil’. The spiritual and well-being health benefits of being with trees in general should not need to be explained or justified here. Especially in the light of scientific revelations in recent years showing the intelligence, sentience and consciousness of plants involves being able to count, learn, remember and so much more.
The best-selling book The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben (Random House, 2016) is a prime example of how discoveries concerning plant consciousness is becoming increasingly fascinating and popular in mainstream human consciousness. Modern scientific understanding of plants, by quantifiable means with the aid of modern technology, confirms the ‘unscientific’ belief ancestral and modern indigenous cultures held and hold about plants being more ‘alive’ than typically perceived today.
Regarding the question of plants having consciousness and ‘brains’, it is a question no longer as it is now scientific fact. But that leads to another question, does a plant have a soul. There are many millions of people worldwide whose spiritual beliefs have never doubted that they do. In the meantime, in Britain, we did doubt it, and that doubt became an erroneous fact. What kind of consciousness then does a living fossil have from an ancestral perspective of 200 million years and has also lived an individual life on Earth for many centuries or perhaps 1,000 or even 2,000 years? What consciousness does a yew of any age possess given their inherited ancestry? Science can show plants can pass on knowledge to offspring so it is a deeply compelling thought as to what has been passed to every yew alive today of whatever age via their living fossil ancestry.
To raise a clearly philosophical question, if we accept the Earth as a self -regulating living organism, as Gaia, then it seems as if the planet ‘wants’ or ‘needs’ the yew to have survived upon it for so long, or why equip its evolutionary journey for the last 200 million years with such powers of survival? If so, this implies the yew may have a vital function to the global biosphere – the web of life – in a way we have not conceived of scientifically. We must recognise too that Taxus has contributed to creating the current biosphere we survive and evolve in via playing its part in the oxygen, carbon, fungal and soil cycles for 200 million years. The strand or branch the yew occupies in the web of life would seem to be a vital one and which more than the yew may depend upon if it disappeared forever. Perhaps we perceived this once and were sensitive to itin a deep way, as reflected in names for the yew meaning The Tree of Life, The Tree of God or the World Tree etc. and found in ancient and modern cultures across all Eurasia.
We can explore this terminology for the yew closer by looking at epithets for the yew from medieval Ireland and bearing in mind how Scottish Gaelic culture has medieval roots in Ireland. This is an entry from the collection of Irish medieval manuscripts from the 12th century collectively known as the Rennes Dindsenchas meaning “The Lore of Places”. It refers to one of the Five Sacred Trees of Ireland Eo Rossa, meaning the Yew (Tree) of Ross as Eo means yew:
“Tree of Ross, a king’s wheel, a prince’s right, a wave’s noise, best of creatures, a straight firm tree, a firm strong god, door of heaven, strength of a building, the good of a crew, a word pure man, full great bounty: the Trinity’s mighty one, a measure’s house, a mother’s good, Mary’s son, a fruitful sea, beauty’s honour, a mind’s lord, diadem of angels, shout of the world, Banba’s renown, might of victory, judgement of origin, judicial doom, faggot of sages, noblest of trees, glory of Leinster, dearest of bushes, a bear’s defence, vigour of life, spell of knowledge, Tree of Ross!”
When we experience a yew today, we do not have in our minds anything like such praise for the yew as ancient Irish bards felt it deserved. Our culture does not appreciate the yew with such clear, heartfelt and enthusiastic esteem. We hardly appreciate it at all in comparison. Even the word yew has no deeper meaning other than it is the name for a tree. Yet look at a few of those epithets compiled for the Tree (Yew) of Ross, such as Mary’s Son, the Trinity’s mighty one, a firm strong god and door of heaven. Just what did the folk in ancient Ireland experience and appreciate about the yew which caused them to give it such obviously high praise in a material sense yet with such metaphysical overtones. How did the yew have such meaning for them, meaning in ways which are lost in our modern sensitivities? Why did they appreciate the yew in ways which are no longer apparent to us and we are apparently insensitive to?
We could easily improve our modern understanding of the yew, our appreciation, recognition and perception of this living fossil to their level because there are facts to support the yew deserving this. If we did so surely that would mean the plight of, and risks to, many yews in the UK and international populations not decently and adequately protected, would not be what it is today – if we made them more ‘valuable’ to us in a non-material sense and genuinely deserving of the best of care we could and can provide for them.
If a tree has a story to tell such as it is Robin Hood’s Oak, Queen Mary’s Sweet Chestnut or Robert the Bruce’s Yew then it can mitigate so many risks to an individual tree and in many cases remove all risk, whether the associations be historically true or by tradition or legend. However, every single yew alive today inherently has a story to tell, no matter how young, mature, old ancient it is because every yew is a part of the yew’s story of 200 million years of life on earth. They are miracles of the natural world, no matter how old, or big.
If we experience a yew equipped with some information and facts about its place in botany, science, history, culture, myth and legend then as we spend time with it, thinking about the tree’s existence here on Earth, it can enhance the experience and appreciation as much and as deeply as we wish to, or not. However, there will always be a small minority of people who will never appreciate yew trees, no matter what facts and information are provided for their perusal. Being aware of some facts about the collective story of the yew can contribute to a new perception of the yew being much more than ‘just’ a tree in common parlance, experience and understanding. What else to consider is that we do not yet know how much more than ‘just’ a tree – how genuinely unique – it truly is, as multi-disciplinary research continues to discover more about it every year and it continues to confound us. Perhaps we are rediscovering the reasons why our ancestors gave the yew the names they did, marking it out as extra special, extraordinary and ineffable. When it was somehow perceived intuitively as being unique, in a class of its own. Over time many botanists have indeed called for Taxus to be re-classified in a class of its own somewhere between plants and trees – in other words, scientifically unique.
Until the advent of geology, archaeology and botany becoming disciplined sciences in recent centuries, our collective ancestors had no proof as we know of how mind-boggling a time period the yew has been upon the Earth. People had no idea the yew was a living fossil as it is known today. Very few people appreciate today that the yew is a living fossil. When names such as the Tree of Life or Tree of Eternity are used for the yew, as it turns out, there is more scientific veracity in them than mere ‘superstition’ or misguided and unscientific spiritual belief – they are true. The fossil record proves it.
The existence of the Taxus genus for 201 million years is surely an example of something possessing ‘eternal life’ on Earth. Moreover, it is an eternal life which has overcome every adversity it has ever had to face in 201 million years. This eternal life has not been easily gained, it was not a gift as granted to mortals by Classical gods in some heaven or Elysian fields. Every catastrophic and traumatic event which has occurred in the last 201 million years and was a threat to the yew becoming extinct has had to be subtly overcome by the yew. To resurrect from the brink of extinction over, and over again takes infinite patience. To endure the initial trauma, the shock, the damage and begin a resilient healing process of resurrection and regeneration, however long that may take. At the macrocosmic scale of the history of the yew genus we see exactly that – resurrection from a ‘near death experience’ and regenerating time and again all over the Earth where habitats allowed.
At a microcosmic level we see the powers of overcoming massive trauma in individual yews, especially so when a yew has been felled and it regenerates from a stump. It is not the only tree capable of this of course, but even yews mostly uprooted by storms rarely die and instead become ‘Phoenix yews’ which rise from an apparent death and simply make the best of their new circumstances by adapting to them without a fuss – with the patience to endure and the confident resilience to overcome their circumstances.
It is known that yews well over 1,000 years of age are not in a state of senescence heading towards mortality. Even if severely damaged, they most often respond quickly and in a year or two sprout annual growth rates comparable to that of vigorous young yews one tenth of their age. In fact one foot (30 cm) of branch growth per year is not uncommon on regenerating exceptionally ancient yews.
It is difficult to visualise this, but we do have an example of what an exceptionally ancient 1500 years old yew tree living in Britain can endure within 150 years and still thrive – because we have a photographic record. Here in these images we see a potted history of the yew from 1994 to 2019 but first showing a grove as it was in the late 19th century. This was only a decade or so after being wrecked by a hurricane which succeeded in killing one of the four yews noted by Wordsworth in the late 18th century, the largest of the yews at that time.
Note the distance between the two trunks in the foreground which we will look at later because of its stunning significance not known at the time the photograph was taken. Sometime in the 20th century the tree on the left of the image was spilt in two and the remnant lies in place today.
For a more in-depth image history of the grove from 1996 – 2014 please visit the Youtube link below for a short and simple video chronicling events in more extensive detail.
The location of these exceptionally ancient yews is a wild, mountainous, remote valley in northern Britain. The grove has been left as far as possible to recover itself because we could be confident it would, given its recovery from severe storm damage as photographed in the late 19th century to the glorious condition it was in around a century later.
Incidentally, in 2011 ‘the’ Borrowdale yew sprang a great surprise because DNA analysis carried out by the National Trust discovered that it did not have a nearby neighbour, the other yew growing ten paces away is in fact the same tree. The third surviving yew of the grove standing apart to the south is not related. What has always been recorded as two separate yews are in fact one. Considering the distance between the stems it had understandably fooled everyone to conclude these yews as separate individual growth. The quite stunning discovery proving otherwise, gives some credence to the hypothesis that perhaps the Fortingall Yew has more to it than how it now meets the eye. On that basis we can now look closer at how the other section of this exceptionally ancient yew has fared during the same time period.
It is obvious that adaptations to the abrupt change of circumstances seem to have been deployed as soon as the initial shock was over. The evidence is the exploitation of new opportunities for photosynthesis enabling new growth occurring so soon afterwards and at such a prodigious rate. Another effect of the changes of such loss of canopy and branches was fully exposing a part of the comparatively undamaged stem to sunlight and rain. And when soaked by rain one reason why the yew is known as the Red Tree, for example in Persia, becomes obvious when we see such a graphic and beautiful change occur as illustrated here.
Cutting edge research constantly being carried out involving ancient yews in Britain (for more information links are available below relating to the latest research) is creating an increasing scientific consensus suggesting the exceptional ancient yew tree in the churchyard at Fortingall, Perthshire is probably at least 2,000 years old. Perhaps it may be a few centuries older, but 3,000 years is not looking probable. That is not to say that yews in Britain have never been older than 3,000 years just that it is unlikely that any of them survive today which could verify that as being true. (See article ‘How Old can a Yew Tree Become?)
Whatever the Fortingall Yew’s age may or may not be, what is undeniable is that the remnants of one, though some think perhaps two, stems we see today is a miracle – in that there is anything left of this yew at all. In 2,000 years of life here in Glen Lyon, no doubt storms took a toll from its branches and perhaps damaging and tearing the trunk over the centuries, but these are setbacks the yew can spring back from if left in peace to do so. After its fame grew and Scottish Highland tourism began, it created a market for ‘trinkets’ carved from its wood. Then the yew was hacked to pieces as a result. This increasing and extreme stress was a long way away from it being anciently respected as a sacred and inviolate tree over the long centuries before modern tourism began. Not only was it on ancient holy ground this sacred location was also on a coffin route through Glen Lyon and the deceased were passed through a gap in the centre of the yew on their way to being interred.
The greatest adversary this yew has had to face, certainly in the last 300 years or so, is not wind, rain, snow and ice but people – once the ancient spiritual respect for it dissipated and was replaced by the opportunity to monetise the yew for the increasingly profitable tourist market. No doubt the income this provided was a welcome addition to a typical rural Highland wage, if indeed there was a wage paid in money at all to most of Fortingall’s locals. But these actions are merely typical of what some people do if there is a profit to be had by exploiting a natural resource.
At that time people did not know what we now know about the yew in so many ways, which is why the idea of sawing off chunks or branches of it today is anathema to any reasonable person. We can appreciate it and value it in ways which do not involve materially profiting from it, though many people state they have profited spiritually after experiencing the Fortingall yew, perhaps no wonder as it is considered the oldest ‘living fossil’ yew alive in Britain and Europe.
Yet what we see of it today is fair to say is a ruin of what it once must have been in its fullest of glory. However, the fact that it is still there, ravaged, wounded, scarred and amputated is still an awesome sight to behold. That something seemingly that should be, by its visual condition, hanging on to the edge of life but is in fact thriving as best it can in its circumstances, is a living testament in microcosm of the ‘eternal’ life this exceptionally ancient living fossil of Taxus possesses.
The yew is not the only living fossil tree, there are others such as the gingko (gingko biloba also known as the Maidenhair tree) dawn redwood (metasequoia glyptostroboides) and Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis). The gingko’s known history in the fossil record is 200 million years, similar to the yew. Today, whilst the yew is native to China, the ginkgo’s natural habitat is not found outside China and is not found across the northern hemisphere as the yew’s population has spread since the last major extinction event 65 million years ago. Like the yew the gingko can be exceptionally ancient, and some are claimed to be over 2,500 years old. Akin to the yew they are resistant to disease, have insect resistant wood and can form aerial roots which all contribute to being able to be long lived. But with all due respect to the ginkgo, it does not possess the same position as the yew does in the cultures, history, religions and spirituality of intercontinental societies across the northern hemisphere. Similarly the dawn redwood and the Wollemi pine do not either.
A refuge population of dawn redwood was discovered living in central China in 1941 and was identified from Mesozoic fossils none of which were younger than 150 million years old. The natural population today is only about 5,000 trees. In Britain today the number of exceptionally ancient yews found so far, i.e. over 1,000 years old – the oldest of the living fossils – is less than half of the number known to date of surviving dawn redwood. This means that exceptionally ancient yews are the very last of their kind and are unknown in western Europe apart from less than a few hundred examples. No other place in western Europe has such a concentration as the British Isles of these oldest of living fossils – in fact, a relict population – and within their numbers are probably the oldest of all living fossils in western Europe.
The Wollemi pine, also a relict population of a few groves of trees confined to Wollemia National Park in Australia, was discovered in 1994. It was proven to descend from the genus Araucariaceae which dates to 200 million years ago. Fossil finds dating to 2 million years ago have been found in Tasmania proving that the tree has changed little during its time on Earth, as with the other living fossils the yew, the gingko and the dawn redwood.
As we can clearly see, the most successful living fossil in terms of its total presence on Earth today is the yew, in terms of population and the diverse habitats it occupies across an intercontinental geographical range across the planet from sea level to well over 10,000 feet (3000 metres) in altitude. It occupies areas where no other living fossil trees can grow. And those areas the yew does occupy surround us – outside homes, in gardens, parks, churchyards, estates, outside castles and grand mansions and in wild areas of river valleys, mountains and moors.
We are not surrounded in our lives by the living fossils of gingko, dawn redwood or Wollemi pine as we are with the yew. Nor do those trees feature prominently in any folklore or religion we know of in the British Isles, but the yew features time and time again.
Moreover, it still does – as it always has and whether we are aware of it or not.
(2) Hageneder, Fred: Yew A History, History Press (2011 edition) Chapter 41, The World Tree.
(3) Squire, Charles: Celtic Myths and Legends, Lomond Books, 2000 edition, p. 101.