If you planted a yew tree now, it could be still be growing sometime in 3014. The incredible long life of the yew tree has earned it a special place in hearts of druids being used to represent the everlasting nature of the world and life. Christians borrowed this symbol and today the Yew tree can be found in many graveyards. Indeed, it may be possible that sites for monasteries were chosen where a Yew tree already existed.
The yew (iúr in Irish) tree is an evergreen conifer that grows to approx. 20m in height. Its dark green needles are odorless and the bark has a dark brown thick, scaly surface. Much of the tree is toxic (except the fruit for birds, but even the seed in the fruit is toxic) and a clear space often surrounds Yew trees due to its thick foliage blocking out light and its toxicity – which would have made them perfect places for graveyards!
There are many places in Ireland that derive their name from the Yew tree. ‘Youghal’ (in Co. Cork) is an english translation of the work ‘Eochaill’ meaning ‘Yew Woods’ which were once abundant in the area. The yew tree is one of the native trees of Ireland.
The long life of the yew tree is credited to its slow growth and its ability to put down new shoots as the tree gets older. These new shoots thicken over time and form a ‘buttress’ around the old trunk – thus when the old trunk withers the new outer trunk is able to support the tree. It is for this reason that many old yew trees are hollow on the inside but perfectly healthy. Even when the core of the tree is rotting, the tree will put down new shoots so that it regenerates into new growth.
With its unique ability to almost recycle itself, it is easy to see why the yew tree became a symbol of everlasting life, growth and immortality. It is also commonly depicted in images of the Tree of Life.
Druids used Yew for their wands, oak and apple also being used. It may have been common to carve ogham letters into yew sticks for use in magical ceremonies or rituals.