By Casey Peters
The Christmas tree is one of the central totems of the holiday season. A wide variety of conifer species are commonly sold as Christmas Trees around the world including firs, douglas-firs, spruces, pines, and cypresses. But I would like to call attention to a lesser known genus of tree that deserves greater attention* during the holiday season, the yew (Taxus spp.).
The Common Yew (Taxus baccata) pre-dates Christmas as a symbol of wintertime celebration. Pagan festivals honoring the winter solstice such as the Roman festival of Saturnalia used evergreen plants, persistent through the winter months, as a symbol of life. When the Christian holiday co-opted those pagan traditions, the yew was imbued (imb-yewed?) with the significance of that particular brand of religion. According to Wikipedia, “Yew trees continually put out new stems which coalesce with the existing trunk resulting in trees of great age. The merging of old and decaying wood with vibrant young shoots has led to the yew being traditionally associated with reincarnation and immortality.” Ancient yews are often found in churchyards and cemeteries in Northwestern Europe, and the largest are hollowed out to contain chapels.
Yews also have the distinction of belonging to a family of conifer (Taxaceae**) that does not produce cones. Instead, the seeds are enclosed in a festive red berry-like structure called an aril. The trees themselves tend to be slow-growing and long lived. They often grow sparsely distributed among the understories of larger trees.
We have a beautiful species of yew to enjoy here in California and throughout the Pacific Northwest, the Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia). And though this tree may not be able to work the miracles of reincarnation or immortality, it does have a special place in the fight against disease. It was from the Pacific Yew that the powerful drug Taxol was first isolated. This compound is used in chemotherapy to fight ovarian, breast, and lung cancer.
So be you pagan or Christian, historian or naturalist, arborist or oncologist, let us all raise our eggnog and toast the beautiful Yew.
*I am certainly not advocating the production, harvest, or display of yews as Christmas trees.
**This plant family has a special place in our lab because it includes the extremely rare Florida Torreya (Torreya taxifolia) which was the subject of the doctoral research of our fearless leader, Mark.
It might be science, it might be nons(ci)ense, but it still smells.