The poisons collection on ThatBiologist continues with the unusual tale of the Yew tree. The Yew tree has a long and complex history and has intertwined itself within human culture. The evergreen tree can be found in the UK as well as over Europe and North Africa. They are also extremely poisonous.
Yew tree’s binomial name is Taxus baccata. Taxus comes from the greek of bow and baccata is latin for berry. All parts of the tree are highly poisonous and the poison remains in the tree even after it has died. (EDIT September 16. Following a comment and some research, not all parts of the plant are highly poisonous however the seeds certainly are!) The poison responsible is called taxine. It can be rapidly absorbed when consumed and without treatment death can occur without symptoms in a few hours of consumption. If there are symptoms they could include a weak pulse or collapse.
Although it is not poisonus to all, the fruits are often eaten by birds and small mammals. The leaves are eaten by catapillars of the satin beauty moth. The Yews dense nature provides an important habitat for birds to build nests in also.
The Yew tree is often a symbol of immortality as well as an omen of doom. This may be due to the longevity of the tree. As the picture shows above the trees are often found in churchyards and there are a few reasons why this might be. Firstly the trees may have been there first, as the yew tree is established within the pagan faith when christianity came about these sites were considered holy. Secondly yew trees were planted over burial sites for plague victims to purify the bodies. Thirdly it could be that the yew trees were planted to stop livestock getting into the churchyards as they would eat the tree and then die. Little bit harsh if you ask me but that might be my farmer side talking.
The Yew trees can be found in popular culture. It is mentioned in the highly popular series of harry potter. Voldemorts wand is made from Yew wood. This links back to the idea of the tree symbolising immortality as well as doom. Nowadays the yew tree is used as a popular hedging plant and chemicals from the tree have been used to make drugs to fight cancer.
That’s all for this episode in the poisons collection. Til next time!