Quick facts

Common name: Irish yew

Scientific name: Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata'

Family: Taxaceae

Origin: non-native

Irish yew is an evergreen conifer which 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).

Look out for: the needle-like leaves which grow all around the main stem and not in rows. Each needle has a raised central vein underneath.

Identified in winter by: its evergreen features which are present all year round.

What does Irish yew look like?

Irish yew needles

Credit: Nature Photographers Ltd / WTML

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.

Irish yew close-up of flower and pollen

Credit: Dr Henry Oakeley / WTML

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.

Irish yew berries close-up

Credit: John Richmond / Alamy Stock Photo

Fruits

The flowers are pollinated by wind and develop into succulent red fruits, which ripen in autumn.

Not to be confused with:

Common yew (Taxus baccata) or any of the other 200 or more cultivars.

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Where to find Irish yew

Irish yew prefers to grow in well-drained soil and can often be found in church yards. It is also grown for ornamental purposes throughout the UK and is tolerant of exposure and urban pollution.

Juniper shieldbug overwintering in Irish yew tree leaves

Credit: Larry Doherty / Alamy Stock Photo

Value to wildlife

Yew hedges in particular are incredibly dense, offering protection and nesting opportunities for many birds. The UK’s smallest birds – the goldcrest and firecrest – nest in broadleaf woodland with a yew understorey. The fruit is eaten by birds, such as the blackbird, mistle thrush, song thrush and fieldfare, and small mammals, including squirrels and dormice. The leaves are eaten by caterpillars of the satin beauty moth.

Wildlife which benefits from Irish yew:

Mythology and symbolism

Yew trees are associated with churchyards and there are at least 500 churchyards in England which contain yew trees older than the buildings themselves. It is not clear why, but it is thought that yew trees were planted on the graves of plague victims to protect and purify the dead, and also in churchyards to stop 'commoners' from grazing their cattle on church ground as yew is extremely poisonous to livestock.

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 yew was ‘the coffin of the vine’, as wine barrels were made of yew staves.

Did you know?

Yew is a primitive form of conifer, bearing fleshy fruits rather than cones.

Uses of Irish yew

Yew timber is incredibly strong and durable. Traditionally, the wood was used in turnery and to make long bows and tool handles. One of the World's oldest surviving wooden artefacts is a yew spear-head estimated to be around 450,000 years old.

Anti-cancer compounds are harvested from the foliage of Taxus baccata and used in modern medicine.

Threats and conservation

Yew has a reputation for being indestructible, but it may be susceptible to root rot.