In St Cynog churchyard in Wales there is an old yew tree. It’s reckoned to be 5000 years old. Yews feature greatly in gardens and their longetivy is well known. But they are especially found in churchyards amongst the flowers, keeping the company of graves. Why?
The yew is a coniferous tree from the family Taxaceae. It grows slowly, lives what seems forever and can reach heights of twenty metres. The seed cone contains a single seed that develops into a bright red berry, the aril, which is eaten by thrushes and waxwings, who in turn disperse the seeds in their droppings. Yet, the yew is poisonous. It contains alkaloids in all its parts, except of course the sweet fruit of the aril. The seed contained within is poisonous to humans, but not the birds. Cattle are found dead after eating the leaves, but not deer, who are able to breakdown the poison. The wood of the yew is reddish brown and very springy, perfect for making longbows. But the English yew is too gnarly, so wood from Spanish yews was imported to make the longbows the English used at the Battle of Agincourt. The demand for yew was such that vast areas of Europe were stripped of the trees.
Probably because the churchyard is enclosed by walls (less chance of grazing animals eating the leaves) and protected by laws, the yews were left, growing slowly and getting older. I’m writing a ghost story at the moment, and the yew and the graveyard are there together, keeping each other company for centuries. But yews also have their roots in pre-Christian culture in other parts of the world, as far away as the Japanese Shinto, who treat the yew as sacred. The Greeks connected the yew to the journey to the Underworld and gateway to death. The pagan druids in Britain believed that the yews being evergreen were part of the regenerative power of rebirth and perhaps therefore, the yew transitioned into the Christian church and became associated with churchyards.
The story of the yew in gardens is much different. They weren’t left alone. They were turned into artwork. The yew is widely used in landscaping, especially in the 18th century when they were planted, then clipped into cones or pyramids. It was the era of Capability Brown that allowed yews to grow out naturally, until the Victorians offered topiary a resurgence. At Powis Castle, one of my favourite landscaped gardens, the yews stand fourteen metres tall on the terraces. A cherry picker is needed to trim them. It takes twelve weeks. In total ten men and four months to clip all the box and yew hedges using hand shears.
The garden perhaps most famous for yew trees is Packwood House. The yew trees there date back to 1600s. A Tudor house built by the Fetherston family between 1556 and 1560, and they lived there until 1876. The yews were laid out in mid-17th century by John Fetherston and are part of the legend of the Sermon on the Mount.
Twelve great yews represent the ‘apostles’, four specimens in the middle are the ‘evangelists’, the spiral path is lined with box hedges that climb up to the ‘mount’. There a single yew crowns the summit as the ‘master’ and all around are the small yews of the ‘multitude’. The story of these yews became popular during Victorian times when the house was acquired by Graham Baron Ash, who had the perfect vision of a country house. Sadly, the soil isn’t that suitable for yews. It’s clay and water logged, less than ideal conditions and the trees get stressed. In 2008, the National Trust, who manage the property, dug new drains around the trees. Let’s hope they live on for a few more centuries.