Yews are small coniferous trees or shrubs in the Family Taxaceae. Yews belong to the Genus Taxus.
Yews are relatively slow growing trees, but widely used in landscaping and ornamental horticulture. The yew has flat, dark-green needles, reddish bark, and bears seeds with red arils, which in Canada are eaten by cedar waxwings and other birds. Yew wood is reddish brown (with white sapwood), and very hard. It was traditionally used to make bows, especially the English longbow.
A species of yew native to the Pacific Northwest of North America, the Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia), is the source of taxol, a drug with apparent anti-cancer activity.
In England, the Common Yew (or English yew, Taxus baccata) is often found in churchyards. It is sometimes suggested that these are placed there as a symbol of long life or trees of death, and some are known to be 2000 years old. It is also suggested that yew trees may have a pre-Christian association with old pagan holy sites, and the Christian church found it expedient to use and take over existing sites. Another explanation is that the poisonous berries and foliage discourage farmers and drovers from letting their animals wander into the burial grounds.
All species of yew contain the alkaloid taxine, which comes in several varieties indicated by letters. All parts of the tree except the arils contain the alkaloid. Children sometimes eat the arils, but they are fortunately the least toxic part. Grazing animals are sometimes found dead near yew trees.