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Mike's Blog - Day 190

Peter and Craig were getting on well with the hedge cutting yesterday, but rain has stopped play today. Peter is tackling the yew hedge (Taxus baccata) in front of the visitor centre. This is a very difficult hedge as it’s in such a dominant position and is needs cutting on both sides, so there is an element of symmetry. It also had the back drop of the visitor centre to it with its straight lines. We actually use a long spirit level on it to get it right.

Yew is an odd conifer. Normally CONE-ifers have cones, but yew trees have their seed in a “berry”, called an Aril. Apparently, but don’t try this at home, Yew berries are not poisonous, but the seeds and foliage are. We had a research student working on ancient yews many years ago and he reckoned if you carefully remove the berry and don’t scratch the seed you can make yew wine. I never saw him again after that so maybe it didn’t work.

At one time we used to collect our yew clippings and sent them off for processing. The drug (docetaxel/taxotere) extracted from it can now be made synthetically in a laboratory according to Cancer Research UK. That would explain why we don’t get requests for yew clippings anymore.

Yews are surrounded by folk law and are among the oldest trees in the UK. There is a small stand in Borrowdale in the Lake District thought to be 1,500 to 2000 years old. Often yew trees are found near churches. There are reputed to be about 500 churchyards in the UK that have yew trees that are older than the churches themselves. One thought is that yew was planted on the graves of plague victims to protect and purify the dead.

Yew was also the wood of choice to make English long bows, and with a powerful arm to pull them back, their arrows were able to pierce armour. I was told that this is also the origin of the rude finger gesture. Upon capture, the enemy - the French - would chop off the middle finger off the bowman, making it impossible to pull the bow string with any force. So in battle the enemy would show the sign of one finger as the threat of what they would do if they caught you. The bowman would return the threat with two fingers, demonstrating they were well capable of firing their arrows.

I have no idea if there is any truth in this, but it’s an interesting tale.