In December, the garden is stripped back to its bare bones; a crumbling wall, moss-covered paving stones, an ivy clad fence. In this stark place of bare stems and leafless trees, the evergreens come into their own. They alone, bring green structure to the garden, and to our streets as well. My favourite of all is taxus baccata, the magnificent yew.
It’s a tree with a long and mythical history. Some specimens are thought to be a thousand, even two thousand years old. The oldest wooden artefact ever found in this country is a yew spear tip thought to be between 300,000 and 450,000 years old.
In 1798 the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge visited the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in Germany, and wrote to his wife about a tradition of bringing in a great yew branch and decorating it with many little candles and coloured paper. The tradition was already in this country, brought by Queen Charlotte who grew up in Mecklenburg-Strelitz, and who continued to bring yew branches into Kew Palace or Windsor Castle where she helped to decorate them herself. In 1800, she went one step further and had an entire yew tree potted up and placed in the middle of the drawing room, where it was hung with fruit, almonds and toys and lit with dozens of small candles, it was the first Christmas tree.
Today yew trees stay outside. While cheaper, faster growing trees decorate our living rooms, yew trees stand guard by gateways and doors, often growing out of impossibly tiny spaces between paving stones. Many of the world’s most ancient yews are found in Britain, and most of those are in our churchyards.
At Painswick in the Cotswolds there are said to be 99 trees in the churchyard. Legend has it that if a 100th tree is ever planted the devil will tear it out. Nearby Cirencester boasts the country’s largest yew hedge, at 40’ high, up to 15’ wide and 150’ long. It yields a whole ton of clippings when it has its annual trim, which are processed to extract a vital ingredient for a chemotherapy drug.
Despite its use to the pharmacology business, yew is almost entirely toxic. The only part that doesn’t contain poison is the flesh of the berries; even the seeds inside can be fatal if ingested.
Its longevity, together with the ability to regenerate from old wood, and its tolerance of dry soil and shade, mean that it is always a popular tree. And at this time of year it really comes into its own, with its striking architectural shapes and the deepest of green boughs against pale stone and frosty ground. It doesn’t need to be uprooted and decorated with tinsel and lights to look truly striking.
Thanks for reading!