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Some other conifers

Conifers date back to around the Carboniferous period of the Paleozoic era over 300 million years ago; a time when much of the world’s coal beds were formed.

Pines are by far the most numerous of conifers*. Here are two other families.


Cypress comes from the Greek, Κυπάρισσος (Kyparissos), the grandson of Hercules, who according to Greek legend, was transformed into a tree after accidentally killing his favourite stag. The Cypress was the classical symbol of mourning.

Lawson’s Cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana)

Lawson’s Cypress is native to Oregon and northwestern California in North America. It was first discovered by Europeans who had settled in the Port Orford area of Oregon and named for Charles Lawson (1795–1873) of Borthwick Hall, a nurseryman and seed merchant from Edinburgh, in 1854. It is widely grown as an ornamental tree.

The wood is light, yet has great strength and is rot resistant, even after long exposure to salt water. It was primarily used for battery cell separation and Venetian blinds. It is shipped almost exclusively to East Asia, where it is highly valued. It is used in Japan for making coffins and in the building of shrines and temples. Due to the straightness of its grain, it is ideal for making arrow shafts. It has a highly fragrant ginger aroma that emanates from the oil which is produced to repel insects and the onset of decay. The oil therefore, makes for a great insect repellent or insecticide.

On a personal level, as an object of beauty, I would argue that Lawson’s Cypress is the most beautiful of all conifers.

Monterey Cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa)

Another American import. As it is a glacial relict, the Monterey Cypress is native to the central coast of California only. Today, its natural habitat is restricted to Pebble Beach and Point Lobos, near Carmel.


Common or English Yew (Taxus baccata)

My favourite tree. Yew is derived from the native name Ywen (Welsh)/Ewin (Cornish). The Persian word سرخدار (sorkhdār) means ‘red tree’. The word Yew was also once used to describe the colour brown. Both Newry and York derive their names from Yew. The Irish name for Newry, An Iúraigh, means ‘grove of Yews’. The native Brittonic name of York is Eburākon (place of Yew). The Archbishop of York uses Ebor (Yew) as his surname.

Yew love steep rocky, usually calcareous slopes and cliff faces. The roots can penetrate extremely compressed soils and rocky terrain. They are also equally at home in churchyards and cemeteries, where there is an abundance of nutrients from the bodies of our dear departed. As a result, some of the oldest and largest trees are to be found in such locations. Preachers once held services beneath Yews, a practice that is a continuance of Druidic worship. Due to the ability of their branches to root and sprout anew after touching the ground, Yews became symbols of death, rebirth and therefore, immortality. They can survive flooding and droughts alike.

Yew sticks are used for divination and dowsing. The wands and staffs of Druids were also often Yew. At Samhain, the Pagan new year, Yew sprigs are used for purification and to communicate with ancestors. Yew is the gateway from this life to the next. My last will is to have a Yew planted on my grave.

Easy to work, Yew is among the hardest of the softwoods. It has an incredible elasticity that makes it ideal for bows. Yew is the wood of choice for longbow making; the heartwood is always on the inside of the bow with the sapwood on the outside. This makes most efficient use of their properties, as heartwood is best in compression whilst sapwood is superior in tension. The oldest surviving Yew bow was found near Dumfries . It has been given a calibrated radiocarbon date of 4040BC to 3640BC. Yew is esteemed for carving and wood-turning and popular as tool handles. Due to its resistance to rot, it is ideal for ship’s masts. It is also used to make gates, furniture, parquet floors and panelling. One of the world's oldest surviving wooden artifacts is a Yew spear head, found in 1911 at Clacton-on-Sea. It is estimated to be over 400,000 years old.

Yews are highly poisonous. The toxins (taxine) can be absorbed via inhalation, ingestion and through the skin. Yews were once exterminated from many woodlands as a poisonous hazard to the cattle and horses that often grazed there. Even today, poisonings are surprisingly common in both domestic and wild animals which consume the plant accidentally. The lethal dose for an adult human is reported to be 50g of needles. Death comes as a result of cardiogenic shock. There are currently no known antidotes for Yew poisoning. Dried Yew plant material retains its toxicity for several months and even increases as it dries. It is therefore essential to wear a face mask when working with Yew.

There are a number of incidents of suicide by Yew poisoning. In one of the earliest recorded cases, Cativolcus, chief of the Eburones, poisoned himself with Yew rather than submit to Rome in 53BC.

Yew is one of the ingredients that is in the potion prepared for Macbeth by the three witches in Shakespeare’s play:-

… Gall of goat, and slips of yew

Silver’d in the moon’s eclipse, …

In 1967, certain compounds found in the bark of Yew were discovered to have efficacy as anti-cancer agents.

Yews generally live for around 600 years, but can reach 2,000 years. The oldest Yew is the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, estimated to be some 5,000 years old.

Yggdrasil, the sacred tree in Norse cosmology, is said to be a Yew.

Japanese Yew (Taxus cuspidata)

As the name suggests, it is an import from East Asia, introduced as an ornamental plant. As with the native English Yew, it is highly poisonous. The pollen is toxic and can cause mild symptoms of taxine alkaloid poisoning and asthma. It is known to live up to 1,000 years.

Kingley Vale**

Although I did not visit Kingley Vale last year, I thought that I would include it here. I visited this amazing Yew forest on my journey out of Cornwall to Sussex. Kingley Vale is one of the most important sites in Britain and Europe. It is a 505 acres site containing some of the oldest Yews still living, many up to 2,000 years old. Situated north of Chichester, it is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Special Area of Conservation and a Grade 1 Nature Conservation Review site. 365 acres of the site is also a National Nature Reserve.

The Yew forest has survived the extermination process mentioned above, as well as the need for millions of longbows, particularly through the 14th. and 15th. centuries and the height of the Hundred Years War.

The main car park is at West Stoke. Be warned, though, the car park is very small! Alternatively, one can follow the footpath from the village of Stoughton, though parking is restrictive. Either way, I highly recommend a visit. There is much to see besides the Yews.

Maps courtesy of Google maps

*see entry Some Pine trees

**see entry On the road again ……. part 5 - Kingley Vale

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Dead interesting ... although If I was seeking to cure myself of cancer I'm not sure I'd choose yew as the best fixative. Being caught between a rock and a hard place comes to mind! :(

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True! I’ll stick to the safe, tried and tested Cannabis

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