Ireland's Biodiversity Awareness Campaign

Species of the Month Archive

 

See some of our past 'Species of the Month', click here.


Common Yew – Taxus baccata

(Yew Forest, Killarney National Park, picture courtesy of John Cross NPWS)

The Common Yew tree (Taxus baccata) is a conifer that is found throughout Ireland. It is easily recognised by its pointed, flat, dark green, odourless, evergreen needles. It is a small to medium sized tree, which only grows to around 10-20 metres high. The bark is scaly and dark reddish-brown in colour, and its seeds mature to a bright red fruit. Many parts of the yew tree are very poisonous, including the leaves and the seeds. In fact, it is so poisonous that horses have been known to die after eating only small amounts. However, the toxic substance has medicinal properties in the treatment of cancer.

While the tree is relatively common, yew woods are very rare; there are only 10 known woods, all in the southwest of the country, and these are designated as priority habitat under the EU Habitats Directive.

The Common Yew is native to the majority of Europe and parts of Africa and Asia. The so-called Irish Yew is a fastigiate, or upright form, cultivated from two trees originally found in Ireland. It is highly popular and is often seen in ornamental landscaping around the Irish countryside.

The yew tree has a close historical association with Ireland, and it is often found in church yards throughout the country. Many townlands in Ireland derive their name from the yew tree. One example is Terenure or “Tίr an Iúir,” which means “Territory of the Yew. Some of these trees are incredibly large and old. It is estimated that yews can live for up to 9,500 years, which is a very long time, considering Irish mythical figure, Fintan Mac Bóchna, declared his great age by outliving a yew tree! More likely, though, the older yews in Ireland are closer to 2,000 years old. Unfortunately it is impossible to accurately date yew trees, as their trunks are hollow, making ring counting impossible.

If you would like more information on yews in Ireland, you can contact the following organisations:

Killarney National Park (http://www.killarneynationalpark.ie/)

The Tree Council of Ireland (http://www.treecouncil.ie/)

 

©2007 Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government