Yew trees make it a special place

PUBLISHED: 07:00 08 June 2019 | UPDATED: 09:07 10 June 2019

A Yew Tree in Sidmouth Parish Churchyard. Ref shs 20 19TI 4721. Picture: Terry Ife

A Yew Tree in Sidmouth Parish Churchyard. Ref shs 20 19TI 4721. Picture: Terry Ife


Tree of the Month – a visitor from the Far East, yew number 1373 by St Giles’ and St Nicholas’ Church.

Yew cones with their red arils.Yew cones with their red arils.

There is a long-established tradition of yew trees in English churchyards and our parish church has a wonderful collection of English and Irish yews, but the tall specimen standing by the gate is different, tree 1373 in Sidmouth Arboretum's database is a Japanese yew (Taxus Cuspidata).

Native to Japan, Korea, China and NE Russia, the Japanese yew is hardier than English yews and grows more quickly, 1373 is probably the same age as the smaller English yew that stands beside it.

Its richly coloured bark and wide spreading branches clothed in dark, evergreen leaves mean it is a great ornamental tree that will make a statement in most settings.

The development of the bright red seed cones or arils makes an additional attraction in autumn and through the winter.

Irish yew with whorled leavesIrish yew with whorled leaves

The Japanese yew can be distinguished from its English cousin in two ways, the leaves and the cones (yews are a distinct family within the conifers). English yews have their leaves arranged in two flat rows while the Japanese yew has them twisted upwards. Japanese yews have many more of the tiny pollen cones clustered on each branch - this gives the tree a yellowish tinge in March and April.

The female cones have a single, exposed seed held by a circular scale called an aril.

As the cone matures, the aril swells and becomes bright red. The ripe aril is very attractive to birds and this ensures good seed dispersal because the seed passes through the bird's digestive system to be deposited elsewhere.

Other animals and people should resist the attraction because all parts of the yew, except the fleshy aril, are poisonous. The actual seeds, as well as the roots, branches and leaves contain chemicals called taxine alkaloids which can cause heart failure. Dog walkers need to take particular care when the arils with their poisonous seeds drop to the ground.

English yew with flat rows of leavesEnglish yew with flat rows of leaves

The other single stemmed yews in the churchyard are English, but there are also several multi-stemmed Irish yews. As well as their multi-stemmed habit, the Irish yews have tightly packed whorls of leaves clothing the stems. One interesting yew to look out for is an English yew near the back corner which was planted close to a gravestone and is swallowing it slowly.

Yew trees can live for more than a thousand years, but the ones in Sidmouth are not that old.

Looking at their trunk girths, the English yews are most likely to have been planted in Victorian times, and the Japanese yew cannot be any older because the Japanese yew was not seen in England until about 1840.

There are several theories about why English churchyards are so often planted with yews. It has been suggested that the timber provided income to the priest when it was used to make long bows, but this is very unlikely otherwise there would be no ancient yews left. Another suggestion is that the poisonous trees were planted to deter local farmers from letting their livestock graze the churchyard. The most likely explanation is that it is a hangover from pagan times where evergreen trees, and yews in particular, were considered magical and planted in sites of religious significance. Whatever the story, their sombre presence helps to make the churchyard a special place.

Japanes yew with upturned leavesJapanes yew with upturned leaves

Ed Dolphin is treasurer of Sidmouth Arboretum, visit the arboretum website to find out more about the trees of Sidmouth.

To read more features from East Devon Resident, click here.

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