The Yew tree and its wood



The yew tree, botanical name Taxus, is well known in the myths and cultures of many areas of the world, its wood having been utilised by man for at least 150,000 years. It is a very slow growing and long lived tree that is highly adaptable and has superb regenerative properties.

A churchyard yew.



Of all the many spiritual and symbolic associations yew trees have had over the years they are best known as symbols of life and death. In Britain there are many churchyards that have a yew trees in them, in many cases the trees were probably there first.

Yew is highly poisonous to many mammals and humans, 50 grams of leaves could be fatal for an adult. The bright red fruit, known as the ‘Aril’ is the only part of a yew tree that is not poisonous.



Yew leaves and Aril



The wood of the yew tree is very dense and generally has very narrow annual growth rings. The heart wood is very tough and durable, being used for everything between Mesolithic hunting spears to modern day high quality furniture. The best timber comes from trees growing in mountainous areas, particularly the Pacific coast of North West America.

There are three main species of yew tree, each having many varieties. These three main species are known as the 'Wallichinana group' the 'Sumatrana group' and the 'Baccata group'. Pacific yew trees belong to the wallicinana group and have the botanical name 'Taxus brevifolia'.

Most of the yew growing in Europe is of the Baccata group and has the botanical name 'Taxus baccata'.




Yew tree growing amongst boulders



The pale coloured sap wood of yew is found in a thin layer, (usually less than ½ an inch thick) directly under the bark of the tree. It is very soft and is the most highly elastic part of the wood. The rest of the trees wood, usually a deep orange red colour, is known as heart wood and while not quite so elastic as the sap wood it does have the additional property of being highly resistant to compression forces.



Some very fine growth rings on a yew stave, ( 54 rings per inch)



From a bowyer’s perspective, the most important property of yew wood is that it is highly elastic. This is mainly due to an unusual anatomical feature of the nutrient conducting cells in the wood known as ‘tracheids’ .(Hageneder p73) In yew they have a strongly developed spiral thickening that acts like tiny springs.

Combine this feature with yew wood’s natural density, strength and close grain and you have a wood that will bend, spring back and remain durable. Combine these natural features with the dual properties of heart and sap wood and you can make a longbow that can not be matched in performance by any other wood longbow.

Reference – (‘Yew: a History’) by Fred Hageneder 2007, Sutton Publishing.



Two staves of Pacific Yew