The Yew, (Taxus baccata) , is an ancient tree species that has survived since before the Ice Age and as such as been revered and used by humankind throughout the ages. All races of the Northern Hemisphere, especially the Celts, the Greeks, the Romans and the North American Indians, have a right and powerful understanding of this unusual and remarkable tree. Because of its longevity and its unique way of growing new trunks from within the original root bole, it has now been estimated that some English Yews are as much as 4,000 years old, their presence spanning ages of time and history.
There are about 10 different species of Yew in the northern temperate zones of Asia, Asia Minor, India, Europe, North Africa and North America. They are all thought to have descended from Paleotaxus rediviva ,which was found imprinted on a Triassic era fossils laid down more than 200,000,000 years ago. Recently, more fossils of the Yew have been found from the Jurassic era, 140,000,000 years ago. So the Yew has managed to survive the great climatic changes of our planet, adapting and finding ways to live longer than most species alive today. According to pollen counts taken from peat bogs of Europe, the Yew trees grew in greater abundance at the time of the Ice Age than they do now. As the glaciers receded northwards, the great forests of Europe contained up to 80% of Yew trees, and since these times have been in continuous decline.
Ancient Yew wood tools and implements can be found in museums throughout Europe. Because it is a slow-growing tree, it has a tight-grained wood, tough and resilient, used in the past for spears, spikes, staves, small hunting bows and eventually the famous longbows of the Middle Ages. The arrows were tipped with poison made from the Yew. The entire tree is poisonous - wood, bark, needles and seed. The only part which isn't is the fleshy part of the seed. Be aware of the dangerous aspects of the Yew if you handle the tree or work with the wood. It is one of the reasons why it is known as the death tree.
Yew has been found to be beneficial in propagating other species. Cuttings soaked in an infusion of crushed Yew and water produce quicker and healthier root growth, though I have not tried it myself. Cuttings of Yew taken from lateral branches generally produce shrub-like plants, while those from erect topward branches are more likely to produce a tree.
In recent years it has been found that taxol, a chemical found in the bark of the Yew, inhibits cell growth and cell division, and may have some promise in the fight against cancer. The biggest problem is that such a huge amount of bark is needed to produce even small amounts of taxol.