Although the Yew--a Conifer--which is so thoroughly English a

tree, is known to be highly poisonous as regards its leaves to the

humans subject, and as concerning its loppings or half-dead

branches, to oxen, horses, and asses, yet a medicinal tincture (H.) is

made from the young shoots, which has distinct and curative uses.

Both the Yew and the Ivy were called abiga, because [620]

causing abortion. From which word when
corrupted was formed

iua; and under this latter name, says Dr. Prior, the Ivy and the

Yew became inextricably mixed up.

Moreover, the red berries, or their coloured fleshy cups, are not

poisonous when taken in moderation, but rejecting the seeds.

Gerard says: When I was yong, and went to schoole, divers of my

school-fellows and likewise myself, did eat our fils of the berries of

this tree, and have not only slept under the shadow thereof, but

among the branches also, without any hurt at all, and that not one

time, but many times.

Yet Leo Grindon says, much more recently: Though the juice and

pulp of the sweet and viscid berries are not harmful, still the seeds

of the Yew, and the leaves are deadly poison.

In the Herbal of 1578, Lyte tells us the Yew is altogether

venomous, and against man's nature. Such as do but only sleep

under the shadow thereof become sick, and sometimes they die;

and, the extract of yew is used by ignorant apothecaries to the great

peril and danger of the poor diseased people.

The Yew tree (Taxus baccata) occurs in mountainous woods and

rocky glens about Britain, but is rare as of native growth. Its name,

Taxus, is a corruption of toxos, an arrow, since arrows in the old

time were poisoned with the juice of yew.

The tree was planted frequently by our forefathers in churchyards,

because of its value in the manufacture of bows. It is exceedingly

long lived, and often attains great magnitude of girth.

A ghastly superstition was attached to the Yew when thus growing

in a churchyard, that it would prey upon [621] the dead bodies lying

beneath its sombre shade. So Tennyson writes (In Memoriam):--

Old Yew! which graspest at the stones

That name the underlying dead,

Thy fibres net the dreamless head,

Thy roots are wrapped about the bones.

The juice of the tree and of its leaves is a rapidly fatal poison,

the symptoms corresponding in a very remarkable way with those

which follow the bites of venomous snakes.

No known poison but the Yew produces the lazar-like ulcerations

upon the body, on which Marlowe lays such stress--(Jew of


In few, the blood of Hydra--Herne's bane,

The juice of Hebron, and Cocytus' breath,

And all the poisons of the Stygian pool.

The witches in Macbeth include it in their accursed brew:--

Liver of blaspheming Jew,

Gall of goat, and Slips of Yew.

The Yew tree is called Hebon by Spencer, and Jew of Malta by

other writers of Shakespeare's time. The leaves are bitter, nauseous,

and acrid. The succulent covering of the fruit is soft and slimy,

mawkishly sweet, and mucilaginous. The leaves have a dangerous

effect on the circulation of the heart, and when taken with any

freedom are as fatal as the Foxglove.

Before the new Shakespeare Society, 1882, it was contended and

proved to the satisfaction of the Society, that the cursed Hebena,

the leperous distilment poured into the chambers of mine ears,

told of, so pathetically, by the sad ghost of Hamlet's father, was the

[622] poison of the Yew, and identical with Marlow[e]'s juice of


Ray mentions that a gardener employed in clipping a Yew tree at

Pisa, could not proceed with his work for more than half-an-hour at

a time without being seized with a violent pain in the head.

Nevertheless, deer, sheep, and goats can eat the foliage with


The fresh leaves were administered to three children near

Manchester for worms. Yawning and listlessness came on, and the

eldest vomited a little, but neither of them complained of any pain.

They all died within a few hours of each other.

Because being then green, on the Sunday next before Easter, the

branches of the Yew tree have been used as a substitute for the

Palms which symbolise the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.

The symptoms induced by provings of the leaves and juice in toxic

quantities, have been sick headache, with giddiness, feeble, faltering

pulse, coldness of the extremities, diarrhoea, and general

prostration. So that for this combination of symptoms, as in severe

biliousness, or as in the auditory vertigo of Meniere's disease, small

doses of the diluted tincture are found to give prompt and effectual

relief. The leaves contain a volatile oil, tannin, and a bitter

principle taxina, which is also furnished by the seeds. An extract

of Yew has been pronounced a useful narcotic by more than one physician

of repute: and in some parts of Germany a decoction of the wood is

a well-known remedy against hydrophobia.

A jelly prepared from the berries has been given for chronic

bronchitis, and the leaves have been used for epilepsy; likewise they

have been taken by ignorant persons to induce abortion, but with

serious injury to the experimenter. In some rural districts the berries

[623] are known as Snots; whilst the wood and roots are Wire


By an old statute of Edward the First, trees were required to be

placed in churchyards to defend the church from high winds, the

clergy being allowed to cut them down for repairing the chancel

when necessary. Perhaps, partly for this reason, the Yew was

commonly planted by the side of a newly-built church. That its

wood was certainly employed for making bows, we learn from


Thy very beadsmen learn to bend their bows

Of double-fatal Yew against thy state.

It was double-fatal, because the leaves and fruit seeds are

poisonous, and the bows made from its branches, as well as arrows

armed with its deadly juice, were instruments of death.

Against the maladies which have been specified as indicating the

tincture of Yew for their cure, from five to ten drops of the third

decimal tincture should be given, with a spoonful of water, every

two, three, or four hours, whilst required. In Switzerland the Yew is

known as William's tree, in memory of Tell. Formerly the name was

spelt Eugh, Yeugh, and Ewgh.

Spenser says:--

The Eugh--obedient to the bender's will.

In olden times the Olitory, or Herb-garden, formed an important

annex to all demesnes having any pretensions to completeness, and

was under My Lady's [624] special charge. In fact, the culture and

preparing of Simples formed a part of every lady's education. My

Lord's retainers and tenants, when out of sorts, were treated with

these wholesome remedies, and were directed to find in Simples the

cure for all ordinary ailments.

Good George Herbert, of Country Parson celebrity, taught, 1620:--

In the knowledge of Simples, wherein the manifold wisdom of God

is wonderfully to be seen, one thing should be carefully observed,

which is, to know what herbs may be used instead of drugs of the

same nature, and to make the garden the shop; for, home-bred

medicines are both more easy for the Parson's purse, and more

familiar for all men's bodies. So where the Apothecary useth either

for loosing, Rhubarb, or for binding, Bole Armena; the Parson useth

Damask, or White Roses for the one, and Plantain, Shepherd's

Purse, or Knotgrass for the other: and that with better success. As

for Spices, he doth not only prefer home-bred things before them,

but condemns them for vanities, and so shuts them out of his family,

esteeming that there is no spice comparable of herbs to Rosemary,

Thyme, Savory, Mints: and of seeds to Fennel and Carraway.

Accordingly for salves his wife seeks not the city, but prefers her

garden and fields, before all outlandish gums. And, surely, Hyssop,

Valerian, Mercury, Adder's tongue, Yarrow, Melilot, and St. John's

Wort, made into a salve, and Elder, Camomile, Mallows, Comphrey,

and Smallage, made into a poultice have done great, and rare cures!