The next plant in our yard that needs a name is this large evergreen right by the kitchen door.
I was pretty sure it was a yew, but wasn’t entirely positive.
Turns out, I was correct! And the particular variety of yew is Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata,’ also known as the Irish Yew. The Irish Yew is fastigiate. “Fastigiate” is a very specific word meaning having branches that run almost parallel to the main trunk. It’s thought to be a mutant of the common Yew (Taxus baccata) which has a more traditional tree form with outstretched branches. It was initially discovered or described in Ireland, hence the common name, Irish Yew.
The bark, wood, leaves, and seeds of the yew tree are poisonous. They contain a cytotoxic chemical that is used to make a chemotherapeutic drugs (taxols). The only part of they yew tree that is edible is the red berry (aka aril), but be very careful to remove the seed if you dare to consume these berries. For humans, consuming about 50 grams of yew needles would be lethal. There are many reports of animals eating parts of the yew tree and dying.
Apparently, in England, most old yew trees were planted in church graveyards. The explanations for this that I read online are varied. It seems like it has to do in part with the symbolism of evergreens and immortality. Yews, in particular, can live for thousands of years. Pagans planted yew trees around their temples and this tradition was adopted by the Christian church. Additionally, some say that since yew trees are poisonous to animals, yew trees were planted in churchyards to keep people from letting their livestock graze amongst the graves.
One more fun fact: According to the American Conifer Society, the Pacific Yew (which is native to the PNW, but not what we have in our yard) almost went extinct due to overharvesting to make paclitaxol (a chemotherapeutic drug). People have since figured out how to make synthetic paclitaxol without the use of yew trees. I’m not sure how I feel about having a highly toxic plant right next to the kitchen door, but if we had to have a yew, it’s a shame that we have a non-native Irish Yew, when we could have had a native, endangered Pacific Yew.