Of all the trees in the woods, the yew appears to me to demonstrate most expressively its nature as a living, breathing, sentient being. It’s dark sinewy muscle mass and sensuous curves are at once beauty and beast, shadow and light. The older trees seem the embodiment of the ancient wise ones, as though they just decided to sit down one day and not move again. So often their trunks resemble human limbs caught in motion, frozen in sacred dance. Even the sap has the deep red of blood and the exposed bark resembles living flesh.
Indeed the yew is one of our most ancient woodland trees, it formed part of the primeval conifer forests many years before there were broadleaves. Legends of death and rebirth are told in its great broken boughs and myriad tiny new shoots that burst up from the trunk. Although one of the first trees to flower in spring, as an evergreen it is in winter that the yew is most revered, when it shows us the promise of life to come. Honored by the Celts as a tree of eternity, it transcends time by renewing itself through its lower branches which root into the ground and become a part of the trunk itself. In this way it demonstrates so beautifully the cyclical nature of life. It even continues to grow when its trunk becomes hollow, long into its great old age, giving it a reputation for immortality. It is best known in the UK for its association with church yards where it was planted as a continuation of the Druid practice of working with the yew in both worship and death.
If you look closely, you can often see faces in the hollowed trunks of ancient yews, and these are said to belong to the spirits of the dead passing from this life to the next.
The Yew is highly poisonous and should never be taken internally or as medicine. Though the bright red berries look appetising, they can cause death to the unwary. The poison used in Shakespeare’s play to kill Hamlet’s uncle was made from yew. Its latin name Taxus baccata gave us the word toxin, used now to mean any kind of poison. It is used homeopathically however to treat a variety of disorders from chronic arthritis and gout, to certain kinds of headache, night sweats and pustular skin diseases.
It can also be taken as a flower essence for protection and grounding and is one of my favourite remedies for this purpose.
Drug companies are also experimenting with a particular alkaloid from yew for the treatment of ovarian cancer, though there are some ethical questions over their methods of harvesting the bark.
For me the medicine of the yew is in its presence, not its constituents. It encourages us to see the wonder in life and death, in darkness and light and in doing so it helps us embrace our own shadows as part of the totality of being.