The Irish Yew – Taxus Baccata Fastigiata

Irish yew at Elcho castle - a location associated with William Wallace
Irish yew at Elcho castle – a location associated with William Wallace

For the last 200 years, millions of yew trees have been planted throughout the world. From castles, grand estates, public parks, churchyards and burial grounds to gardens of all kinds everywhere, the Irish yew is now a common feature in them all.

Most people, however, do not particularly notice these evergreen trees or appreciate that each and every Irish yew is a particularly special and historically important tree. The reason why is that every true Irish yew is directly descended from a single mother yew growing at Florence Court, County Fermanagh in northern Ireland, UK.

On the mountains above Florence Court, a local farmer noticed some strange looking bushes of yew and dug them up. Some sources say this was in 1757 or 1767 and others 1780. Whatever the circumstances, the farmer kept one yew in his garden, where it lived until 1865 and then died. He had given the other to his landlord, William Cole, later made the First Earl of Enniskillen and this one survived.

A young European yew and an Irish Yew
A young European yew and an Irish Yew

It was unlike any other yew found in Britain and Europe, due to its dense, upright, ‘fastigiate’ cypress-like growth habit; seen in many Classical idealist depictions of trees in ‘Arcadian’ landscapes. It also possessed dark, emerald green foliage, hence attracting the attention of Georgian horticulturalists and cuttings were made commercially available in 1820. (1)

As we can see in the image, the  differences between very young European yew and Irish yew almost make  them appear to be entirely different species, especially regarding foliage colour.

It is particularly compelling that the Irish yew has such emerald green foliage. Ireland is often, and with pride, called the Emerald Isle because of its greenness, which some attribute to high levels of copper in the soil. Whether that is true or not, something caused a yew bush on a mountain to develop a distinctive emerald colour, and also perhaps could have influenced the distinctive morphology.

The typical columnar shape of an Irish yew
A typical, dense and bushy Irish yew planted in a churchyard. The lower foliage clearly resembles the amorphous shapes of smoke and clouds

Due to their columnar growth habit, Irish yews were apparently much easier to manage than the spreading growth habit of the English, Common or European yew (as it was variously known in the 19th century).This was an obvious factor in their appeal to estate managers, gardeners and churchwardens and they were planted on estates, in formal gardens and in many ‘beautified’ churchyards in the late Georgian and Victorian period and also extensively used for hedging and topiary. ‘Beautified’ is a process which primarily is a matter of perceived aesthetics and gentrification, meaning the churchyards were extensively modified, remodelled or newly created from scratch; often paid for by the increasingly wealthy merchant class and industrialists. In the process hundreds of ‘old’ trees, inevitably including ancient yews, deemed to be unsightly or ‘past their best’ were lost. Consequently, rather than spiritually improving a site, the essence of it – often a very ancient spiritual essence – was destroyed.

An avenue of Irish yew - Scone Palace
The yew avenue at Scone Palace showing the reverting process of Irish yews as they get older

At Scone Palace in Perthshire, on the edge of the grounds, there is an avenue of Irish Yew. We can see here how the compactness of young Irish yew has been lost over time as the branches have spread and in the process created a wonderful interwoven roof to the avenue. What was not foreseen at Scone when the avenue was planted was that, over time, the Irish yew reverts to a more spreading growth habit like its mother tree.

We can see in the earlier image of an Irish yew in a churchyard, branches which look like broomsticks are poking horizontally from the canopy and this is the beginning of the reverting process. As we can see below, once this process is in full swing the upright growth habit becomes more and more lateral on the lower branches, almost as if they are being ‘pulled’ to the ground.

Whether or not this growth pattern would result in branches reaching the ground, taking root and layering, which is a typical growth habit of Taxus baccata if left to grow in peace, remains to be seen over the coming centuries. Irish yews can only have grown where they are now for 200 years and mostly a lot less than that. Therefore we do not know what a 400 – 500 year old Irish yew would look like, as none currently exist. It is only by protecting Irish yews will we discover how their mature forms will evolve in the coming centuries – a sight we have never seen before in tree biology.

An Irish yew reverting
Now wider than it is tall, a reverting Irish yew planted circa 1841

Fundamentally, however, and not known at the time, the Irish and European yew distinctions we make mask the fact that essentially both are yew trees – they are, despite what we see before us, exactly the same tree. Biological research has shown that, genetically, all the kinds of yews as taxonomically classified are local variations adapting to prevalent habitat conditions – it is just a matter of surface appearance, not the creation of a truly distinctive sub species.

As stated by P. A. Thomas and A. Polwart:

Most species contain the alkaloid Taxol and although Dempsey and Hook (2000) found wide variation in morphological characteristics and chemical features (paclitaxel content) between varieties of T. baccata they found no distinctive interspecific differences of taxonomic value between species.”  (2)

Arils on an Irish yew
Clusters of arils upon an Irish yew

As all true Irish yews are female, they typically create an abundance of arils from early summer to late autumn in any average year of decent weather. These arils are edible, with a sweet honey like taste when ripe, but the seeds are poisonous and must be removed before eating.

The fact that all true Irish yews are clones descended from a single mother raises an interesting philosophical conundrum: is each clone as old as the parent organism. Does a new ‘life’ begin when a clone is taken or when planted after propagation? There is much heated debate and discussion on this issue and no agreement when giving an age to an Irish yew.

If when a clone (a cutting) is taken and it is accepted as an organism to be as old as the yew it was taken from, then all Irish yews are at least between 238 – 263 years old (in 2020) – depending on which date when the bushes were truly excavated. Plus, however old the bushes were when taken. This could mean decades or even more as yews growing in upland and mountain environments in the UK have been shown to have extremely mitigated and slow growth rates – in fact amongst the most slowly growing woody plants in the world. If this premise is considered reasonable, any genuine Irish yew in a pot for sale in a garden centre and assumed to be a seedling, would be no such thing. In essence it would already be a juvenile yew tree well over two hundred years old at least and approaching the threshold of the mature stage of growth typically beginning between 300 – 400 years old. It might look like an infant seedling, but its life essence would be the equivalent of the beginning of maturity in a human being.

Regarding the process of cloning, it is now accepted by new scientific discoveries researching plant consciousness, that all trees, therefore yews, have ‘memory’ and this can be passed on to offspring inferring that a clone has the memories of the donor as they were once part of the same living organism. (3).

Unclipped branches on an Irish yew reverting
Unclipped branches on an Irish yew reverting

It is doubtful whether anyone regards Irish yews in churchyards as sacred yews. They were essentially planted for reasons of aesthetics and site management, not to protect or guide the spirits of the deceased or whatever. But nevertheless they are sacred – because they are in the sacred spaces of churchyards and burial grounds. And because they are in essence yews, then they are performing the same cultural function, ‘protecting’ such places. Perhaps there was some degree of subliminal intention to replace lost European yews with these ‘new and improved’ Irish ones – as the Victorians were big on ‘improvements’ – but it was certainly not a like for like comparison by any means on a spiritual basis.

Whether by accident, design, aesthetics, or with some spiritual intent in some instances, the explosion of Irish yews planted all over the world in the last two centuries is, in fact, an explosion of yew trees. Whilst not apparently so due to appearance, the essence of the Irish yew is the same as any other kind by any other name found anywhere else in the world – a yew is a yew is a yew, no matter how it may appear to us in its adapted forms. But we do not perceive the Irish yew in the same way as the European yew; it has no sacred reputation or proven longevity in comparison. It will take another 800 years or so for the mother Irish yew to surpass that magical threshold so important to the human psyche; becoming a one thousand year old tree – a truly legendary yew tree. We can only hope that day will come to pass, and that in that far off future the planting date is still provable, so that there is no doubt. No European yews have appeared in the world in the last two centuries in such huge numbers as the Irish yew has. We must be thankful that, although in a slightly different guise on paper, this is a population of yews biologically and culturally significant due to their unique maternal ancestry.

Taxus bacatta occupies an area of the Atlantic seaboard, from Portugal to southern Norway and all points in between and exhibits a common growth habit – it is indistinguishable geographically. Therefore, what caused a yew to become such a distinctive upright, tightly foliaged tree on a mountain in Ireland? What factor, or factors, made it grow so differently from the prevalent norm in form and colour within all these western Atlantic regions. Why only on one island. Why, seemingly, only on one mountain. Perhaps the geology of the mountains of Fermanagh may hold the key.

Animal predation mitigating young growth by nibbling shoots is perhaps a likely cause for the original form of the Irish yew. However, many young yews throughout the world are subjected to this, especially in wild areas. Yet the form and colour of the Irish yew has seemingly never appeared elsewhere on the planet and has been enough to merit a new taxonomical classification. Even yews growing on mountains, in fully exposed and inaccessible areas beyond animal predation and human interference, have the morphology of European yew.

Although pure speculation, could it be that the mother Irish yew was not a freak or mutation? Was it instead the very last of a kind once more numerous in Ireland? Perhaps catastrophic climate change meant yews in some areas had to employ extreme growth strategies to survive. The low growing, ‘keep your head down’, bonsai-creeper habit of Taxus baccata in the limestone pavements of the Burran on the Iveragh peninsula of Ireland (Iveragh is a yew associated name, is a case in point. For a yew to resist the primal urge to grow a spreading canopy, and instead make it as tight and upright as possible, would imply exceptional conditions indeed being the cause. But what conditions could cause this.

Unclipped branch on an Irish yew reverting
Unclipped branch on an Irish yew reverting

If animal predation is not the factor, wind strength can be considered but low, spreading growth is the best strategy to combat this, maintaining wind deflection and branch flexibility. Many yews in exposed habitats in Britain exhibit this ‘parasol’ type of growth behaviour and curiously do not seek to layer branches into the ground. Ireland is historically a temperate climate, so extreme cold causing a yew to ‘bunch up’ foliage against such temperatures is not likely. So another yew mystery remains: a genuine distinctive blip in the yew DNA of only two yews on a mountain in Ireland and cause as yet unknown.

Is it perhaps ‘something else’ which has subtly led to planting millions of Irish yews in sacred, special or more general places in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – yews we perceive as ‘different’, but in essence are not. Perhaps, inadvertently, we have been helping ourselves by re-energising and repairing the presence of the yew around us, restoring its numbers to some appreciable extent after the decimation of yew populations throughout mainland Europe and parts of Britain and Ireland due to the need for longbows. The longbow trade saw the extinction of the yew in many areas of Europe by the end of the 16th century and it has yet to return in any appreciable numbers. This sudden lack of resources for creating the firepower and accuracy of a yew longbow actually accelerated the development of the firearms industry in the 16th century as the longbow, especially in the hands of English armies was the most feared weapon on the battlefields of the Middle Ages as for example, the French and Scots can testify. By 1601 Queen Elizabeth I of England ordered that her army could no longer be equipped with longbows and they would be replaced by firearms (4). It was not until the 19th century that a rifle was invented that could match the power, range and effect of an arrow fired from a military quality longbow. In Britain in the last 500 years yew populations and individual trees have also been decimated, mainly due to the industrialisation and development of urban and countryside areas and the vast plantations created by the forestry industry since the Second World War.

This increased physical presence of yew trees around us due to the global mass planting of Irish yew in the last two centuries is a powerful connection. Perhaps it may be causing a stirring of ancestral memories when yew trees were more commonly experienced around us and we had deep spiritual and cultural connections with them, especially in the pre Christian period. Could this increased presence of the Irish yew be prompting a re-emergence of long buried ancestral experiences, and causing a deeply rooted urge to re-connect to that magical and mysterious ‘something else’ about yew trees? That indescribable ‘something else’ which can be experienced but words cannot quantify, nor truly convey, despite the best efforts of the writers, authors, poets, philosophers and scientists who have attempted it. And in the process discovered for themselves that the yew – whether Irish or in whatever other form it may manifest upon this planet – truly is ‘something else’.

References:

(1) www.nationaltrust.org.uk/florence-court/features/the-original-irish-yew-tree-at-florence-court

(2) Thomas Peter A. and Polwart A. 2003:  Biological Flora of the British Isles, Taxus Baccata L. Journal of Ecology 91, No. 229, p. 489 – 524

(3) Evidence for tree having memories https://phys.org/news/2020-07-trees-ecological-memory.html

(4) Sir Humphry Wakefield BT – pers. comm.