Friday, September 18, 2015

It's All About YEW

The Reflection Pool at Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island,
Washington, is surrounded by a formal, clipped yew hedge. 
"The still air of the church shivered suddenly into bits, the echoes of a scream scattering the dust motes. Without conscious thought, Roger was outside, running, stumbling and scrambling over the tumbled stones, heading for the dark line of the yews. He pushed his way between the overgrown branches, not bothering to hold back the scaly twigs for Brianna, hot on his heels. 
Pale in the shadows, he saw Claire Randall's face. Completely drained of color, she looked like a wraith against the dark branches of the yew. She stood for a moment, swaying, then sank to her knees in the grass, as though her legs would no longer support her.
 - from DRAGONFLY IN AMBER, by Diana Gabaldon

Besides this scene in DIA, yews have another Outlander connection: the European yew is the plant badge of the Clan Fraser. It is said that members of the Clan often wear small branches of yew in their caps as a protection.

According to lore, plant badges or clan badges are sprigs of plants used to identify members of specific Scottish clans. Men typically wear these bits of foliage attached to their caps. Women pin the badges to their tartan sashes at the shoulder. For more on the history of these plant badges and a list of which clan wears what, take a look at this Wikipedia page.

When I think of yews, I think of stately, dark evergreen hedges. Unlike spectacular plants that call attention to themselves with  colorful flowers or traffic-stopping fall color, yews are the silent sentinels of the garden. They stand quietly by, creating garden walls and providing a backdrop for the garden showoffs.

That said, there is one garden I can think of where yews play a starring role. It is the Reflection Pool at Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island, Washington (pictured above). This garden features a large, rectangular, spring-fed pond, which is edged with lawn and surrounded by a formally clipped yew hedge. Outside the hedge, majestic conifers stand tall: western red cedar, Douglas fir, and blue atlas cedar. When you enter this garden, you feel a Presence - it's as though you have stepped into a cathedral. If you took away the hedge, it would still be a beautiful place, but the majesty of it would be lost.

(For stunning photos of this garden and others within the Reserve, take a look at this article on The Intercontinental Gardener's website.)

Botanical Information 

Family: Taxaceae
Genus: Taxus
Species: Taxus baccata
Common name: European yew

Yews are evergreen conifers native to Europe, Northern Africa and Southwest Asia. They are some of the longest lived trees in the world. The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, Scotland, for example, is said to be between 1500 and 3000 years old.

Yews bear small, single-seed cones. As the Latin name "baccata" indicates, they produce small red berries which appear in fall.

Medicinal Uses

Caution: all parts of this plant are poisonous, except for the flesh of the berries. However, compounds contained in the bark of the European yew have been found to be useful in fighting cancer. Taxol, a plant alkaloid derived from the leaves of European yew and it's cousin, the Pacific yew, Taxus brevifolia, is a chemotherapy agent used in the treatment of breast, ovarian, bladder, lung and other cancers.


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