Yew, Irish (Taxus baccata 'fastigiata')
Irish yew is an evergreen conifer grown for ornamental purposes throughout the UK.
Common name: Irish yew
Scientific name: Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata'
UK provenance: non-native
Interesting fact: yew is a primitive form of conifer, bearing fleshy fruits rather than cones.
What does Irish yew look like?
Overview: can grow to 7m. The bark is grey-brown with purple tones, and it peels. It was originally discovered in County Fermanagh in 1780, and it is thought to be a mutant form of the common yew, (Taxus baccata). Irish yew was subsequently cultivated for its different foliage and more upright growth.
Leaves: straight, small, curved needles with a pointed tip, and coloured black-green (darker than common yew). Unlike common yew, the needles grow all around the twig, rather than in rows.
Flowers: male flowers are globular white-yellow anthers, while female flowers are bud-like and scaly, and green when young but becoming brown and acorn-like with age.
Fruits: pollinated by wind, these develop into succulent red fruits, which ripen in autumn.
Look out for: the needle-like leaves grow all around the main stem and not in rows. Each needle has a raised central vein underneath.
Could be confused with: yew (Taxus baccata) or any of the other 200 or more cultivars.
Identified in winter by: it is an evergreen so its features are present year round.
Where to find Irish yew
Irish yew prefers to grow in well-drained soil and can be often found in church yards due to its tolerance of exposure and urban pollution. Irish yew also works well as evergreen hedging.
Value to wildlife
Yew hedges in particular are incredibly dense, offering protection and nesting opportunities for many birds.
The red fruits are eaten by birds such as the blackbird, mistle thrush, song thrush and fieldfare, and small mammals such as squirrels and dormice. The leaves are eaten by caterpillars of the satin beauty moth.
Mythology and symbolism
Yew trees have long been associated with churchyards and there are at least 500 churchyards in England which contain yew trees older than the building itself. It is not clear why, but it has been suggested that yew trees were planted on the graves of plague victims to protect and purify the dead, but also that graveyards were inaccessible to cows, which would die if they ate the leaves.
Yew trees were used as symbols of immortality, but also seen as omens of doom. For many centuries it was the custom for yew branches to be carried on Palm Sunday and at funerals. In Ireland it was said that the yew was ‘the coffin of the vine’, as wine barrels were made of yew staves.
How we use yew
Irish yew is mostly used as an ornamental tree in parks and gardens, noted for its upright habit and darker foliage.
Yew has a reputation for being indestructible, but it may be susceptible to root rot.