Plant-Lore

Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Churchyard yews

Yew (Taxus baccata) is a characteristic tree of churchyards, where some are estimated to be well over 1,000 years old. According to David Bellamy:
We … know that ever since people arrived in force upon these shores they have been in the habit of planting yew trees in acts of sanctification, close to where they eventually hoped to be laid to rest [1].
And, according to a label on a yew tree at Kew Gardens in 1993:
The Druids regarded yew as sacred and planted it close to their temples. As early Christians often built their churches on these consecrated sites, the association of yew trees with churchyards was perpetuated.
Similarly on 19 August 1993, The Times reported that a yew tree in the churchyard at Coldwaltham, West Sussex, had been confirmed as one of the oldest trees in England … probably planted around 1,000 BC by Druids.
Robert Bevan-Jones has argued that old yews in Welsh and English churchyards mark the sites of hermitages or cells of early saints, but the trees were planted near the cells, rather than the cells being built beside already existing trees [2].
Needless to say there is little, probably no, evidence to support such ideas, but the reason for planting yew trees in churchyards has never been satisfactorily explained.
In 1992 Jennifer Chandler gathered explanations in an article in FLS News [3]:
Yew trees were planted in graveyards as they thrived on corpses and were then readily available to make excellent bows.
Yew trees were planted in churchyards to prevent archers from procuring suitable branches for making bows and thus having good weapons to oppose the King’s men.
Yew trees for making bows were planted in churchyards where they would nor be eaten by, and poison, grazing animals.
Poisonous yew trees were planted in churchyards so that farmers made sure that their animals didn’t stray into them.
Yew wood is distinctly red and white, especially when the trunk is freshly cut. The heartwood is red, the sapwood … is white. The colours were used to symbolise the blood and body of Christ.
According to a note in Plant-lore Archive, received from Stoke, Devon, in April 1993: yew [was] planted in graveyards to ward off evil spirits.
In 1307 King Edward I ordered yew trees to be planted in churchyards to protect churches from gale damage, and Robert Turner, writing in 1644, suggested that yew absorbed the vapours produced by putrefactation [4]. Writing of Somerset in 1791, John Collinson suggested that yew trees were presevered in churchyards because their evergreen foliage was ‘beautifully emblematical of the resurrection of the body'[5].
No doubt a prolonged search would produce further explanations.2014-05-27 14.19.17

1. The Times, 3 October 1998.
2. R. Bevan-Jones, The Ancient Yew, 2002: 30.
3. Old men’s fancies: the case of the churchyard yew, FLS News 15: 3-6.
4. Bevan-Jones, op. cit: 44.
5. K. Palmer, The Folklore of Somerset, 1976: 56.

Note: John Hunnex has drawn our attention to a fragment of yew in the herbarium of the Natural History Museum, London, which is labelled: ‘Palm. The Yew. Taxus baccata. Planted in churchyards for the use of the branches on Palm Sunday and for the making of bows.’ Unfortunately the name of the collector, and date and place of the collection are not recorded.

2014-03-18 12.05.54Images:  main and upper inset: churchyard at Wilmington, East Sussex, Andrew Hay, November 2011. According to a notice attached to the churchyard’s gate: ‘The yew tree immediately outside the church is estimated to be about 1600 years old and is one of the most ancient yews in the country. For those of the Christian faith a yew tree is symbolic of Christian Resurrection as it has the ability to regenerate by sending down a shoot from high up which then takes root in a crevice near the base of the old tree, thus giving birth to new life.’

Middle inset:  St George’s churchyard, Crowhurst, East Sussex, said to be over 1,000 years old; May 2014.

Lower inset:  churchyard of St Michael and All Angels, Bampton, Devon, March 2014.   The wall around the trunk of this tree is said to have been built to prevent sheep from eating its bark.  At one time the wall incorporated a seat running round it, but when the wall was recently rebuilt the cost of replacing the seat was considered to be too great, so now there is just a simple wall.

Updated 9 August 2014.