10 Facts about the Yew Tree

Fog on the Mountain, Mullagh More

Fog and rain on the slopes of Mullaghmore.

I climbed Mullaghmore hill  (200 m) in the Burren National Park this Monday morning with a group of high school students from Quebec. Even though we were subject to heavy bursts of rain, we had a really memorable hike. On our descent I stole a moment to take a shot of a yew tree growing on one of Mullaghmore’s cliffs.

The moment prompted me to write ten facts worth knowing about the yew tree…………….
1) Ireland is home to only three native conifer species – the yew (Taxus baccata), juniper (Juniperus communis) and the scots pine (Pinus sylvestris).
2) Paclitaxel is a naturally occurring chemical in the bark of the yew. It is used to treat cancers including ovarian, breast, lung and pancreatic cancer among others.
3) Yew wood is very strong and flexible. It is probably the best regarded wood growing in Ireland today. Yew furniture commands a high price!
4) Yew is known as eó or iúr in the Irish language. Examples of place names inspired by the yew are Maigh Eó (Mayo) the plain of the yew and Tír an Iúr (Terenure) land of the Yew.
5) The yew tree was revered in pre-Christian Ireland. It is deeply symbolic. The poisonous leaves represent death. The really hard wood is a symbol of eternity. Moreover, as the tree is very long-living , it is also a symbol of the afterlife.
6) The tree is cultivated in 100s of Irish and British churchyards. There is theory and controversy as to why the yew is associated with sacred sites.
7) Ireland’s only native yew wood is in Reenadinna Wood in Killarney National Park.

Reenadinna Wood

Reenadina Wood, Killarney National Park, County Kerry.

8) The yew can reach 20 metres in height and live for 1000s of years, some yews in the UK have an estimated age of 4000 years. The oldest trees in Ireland are estimated to have lived for some 800 years.
9) The cattle in the Burren uplands avoid the tree because of its toxicity but it is grazed by feral goats.
10) The tree grows mostly at bonsai levels in the Burren hills. It will grow more expansively only in places where it has shelter from the strong westerly winds.

Cliff Yews, The Burren

This Yew at Turloughmore Mountain is among the oldest trees in Ireland.

Other tree species that grow in the famous limestone uplands of the Burren include whitethorn (Crataegus monogyna) , blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) , hazel (Corylus avellana), birch (Betula), ash (Fraxinus excelsior), whitebeam (Sorbus ), holly (Ilex aquifolium), alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus), purging buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica),  rowan/mountain ash (Sorbus aria), crab apple (Malus sylvestris), aspen (Populus tremula), spindle (Euonymus europaeus) and many species of willow (Salix ).

Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmaid?  What shall we do without wood?

© Text by Tony Kirby / Images by Carsten Krieger

One thought on “10 Facts about the Yew Tree

  1. yew trees in Ireland. I wonder just where the biggest/oldest ones are. Surely it would be on a protected estate of some medieval castle that has survived into our time? Saw several big ones along the entry lane leading along the river bottom to the Ennistymon Falls Hotel. Surprisingly big. Along with several other species of big, old trees, they were sentinels announcing that the hotel was something quite more than a big house of modern hospitality. While enjoying a cup of coffee with a “sick” view (that’s the new word with youngsters here for something that is ridiculously fine) from the big-windowed restaurant, I learned the place was indeed built over and around the old castle of the MacNamara landlords of the town, the same outfit who changed the course of the river to flow over the falls…


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