Above, from left to right: A large yew tree (Taxus baccata) growing near the portcullis on the lower drive of The Cloisters; a detail of the yew in fruit in mid-November. The gelatinous red flesh surrounding the seeds is as sweet as it looks, and is innocuous, but the seed itself is very toxic, as are the leaves.
There is here above the brotherhood
A bright tall glossy yew;
The melodious bell sends out a keen clear note
In St. Columba???s church.
???Fragment of an Irish poem, ca. 800???1000
A famously long-lived tree of ancient significance, the yew (Taxus baccata) has borne both positive and negative connotations. As Geoffrey Grigson notes, yew was??beneficent in its character as a protective tree, to be grown in dooryards and churchyards (perhaps because of the red fruit, often a sign of apotropaic power); it was a tree of life, both as an evergreen and because of the great age and stature it could attain. However, yew also had more somber and funereal associations because of its poisonous nature.
In Greco-Roman antiquity, the yew was sacred to the Furies and was a plant of ritual purification; according to both the Roman natural historian Pliny and the poet Ovid, yew was a tree of hell and grew near the entrance to the underworld. Yew was planted on tombs and was associated, like the cypress, with death. It was also a sacred tree of the Celts, planted anciently in the British Isles, where many famous specimens, like the Fortingall Yew, remain.
Christian commentators associated the poisonous fruit with sin and death, but despite this link, yew was used as a Christmas green in Europe. (Like the boxwood that will be the subject of next week???s post, the yew was used not only at Christmas but also on Palm Sunday as a substitute for the exotic palm, which would only have been available in southern Europe.) The Renaissance painter Girolamo dai Libri juxtaposes a yew tree, as a symbol of the Tree of Death, with a pomegranate in flower, signifying the Tree of Life in his Presepe dei Conigli, or Nativity with Rabbits. (An image of this work is available on the website for the Dioceses of Verona, Italy.) Dai Libri also contrasts the Tree of Life and the Tree of Death in the Met’s Madonna and Child with Saints. In this work the Tree of Life is a magnificent bay laurel; the Tree of Death is unidentifiable.
Yew was a useful as well as a symbolic tree. Both its hardness (a post made of yew was said to outlast one made of iron) and its flexibility were exploited in weaponry: Beowulf???s shield was made of yew, and yew was also the wood of choice for the medieval longbow.
Grigson, Geoffrey. The Englishman???s Flora.??London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1955.
Levi D???Ancona, Mirella. The Garden of the Renaissance: Botanical Symbolism in Italian Painting.?? Firenze: L. S. Olschki, 1977.