The Yew reference article from the English Wikipedia on 24-Jul-2004
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Yew

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English Yew

Scientific classification
Kingdom:Plantae
Division:Pinophyta
Class:Pinopsida
Order:Pinales
Family:Taxaceae
Genus:Taxus
Species
T. baccata (European Yew)
T. brevifolia (Pacific Yew)
T. canadensis (Canadian Yew)
T. cuspidata (Japanese Yew)
T. floridana (Florida Yew)
T. globosa (Mexican Yew)
T. mairei (Chinese Yew)
T. sumatrana (Sumatran Yew)
T. wallichiana (Himalayan Yew)

Yews are small coniferous trees or shrubs in the Family Taxaceae. Yews belong to the genus Taxus.

Yews are relatively slow growing trees, widely used in landscaping and ornamental horticulture. They have flat, dark-green needles, reddish bark, and bear seeds with red arils, which are eaten by thrushes, waxwings and other birds, dispersing the hard seeds undamaged in their droppings. Yew wood is reddish brown (with white sapwood), and very hard. It was traditionally used to make bows, especially the English longbow.

A species of yew native to the Pacific Northwest of North America, the Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia), is the source of taxol, a drug with apparent anti-cancer activity.

In England, the Common Yew (Taxus baccata, also known as English Yew) is often found in churchyards. It is sometimes suggested that these are placed there as a symbol of long life or trees of death, and some are likely to be over 3,000 years old. It is also suggested that yew trees may have a pre-Christian association with old pagan holy sites, and the Christian church found it expedient to use and take over existing sites. Another explanation is that the poisonous berries and foliage discourage farmers and drovers from letting their animals wander into the burial grounds. The yew tree is a frequent symbol in the Christian poetry of T.S. Eliot, especially his Four Quartets.

image:English Yew close 250.jpg
A close-up view of the leaves and arils of an English Yew

All species of yew contain the alkaloid taxine, which comes in several varieties indicated by letters. All parts of the tree except the arils contain the alkaloid. The arils are edible and sweet, but the seed is dangerously poisonous; unlike birds, the human stomach can break down the seed coat and release the toxins. This can have fatal results if yew 'berries' are eaten without removing the seeds first. Grazing animals are sometimes found dead near yew trees.