All parts of the beautiful English yew tree are highly poisonous except the fleshy bell-shaped red berry that covers its seeds. The great Greek physician, pharmacologist, botanist, and author Pedanius Dioscorides said that even sitting down under its shadow was dangerous. The Celts were said to poison their arrows with the juice of this tree to paralyze their victims.
Yew Tree Scientific Facts
- Other names: Chinwood, yew, European yew.
- French: If.
- Spanish: Tejo.
- Environment: Shady areas in forests and slopes all over Europe, North America, and southern South America. More frequent in oak and ilex forests and calcareous soils. In some countries, the tree is especially protected, given that it is an endangered species. Grown as a decorative plant in some parks and gardens.
- Description: Dioic (male and female flowers on different plants), evergreen tree or shrub of the Taxaceae family, growing up to 20 m high. The seeds of the female flowers are covered by a bell-shaped red berry, which is a false fruit.
- Parts of the plant used medicinally: The berries or false fruit.
Healing Properties and Warning
The fleshy berries covering the seeds of the English yew contain mucilage. A pectoral syrup is prepared from them to ease expectoration. They also contain proteins and have emollient (soothing and anti-inflammatory) properties, mainly on the respiratory system.
The rest of the plant, even the seeds, contains taxine, a very poisonous alkaloid that causes convulsions, nervous paralysis, colic, disorders of the heartbeat rhythm, and even heart failure and death. In ancient times it was used in small doses to stimulate intestinal movements and increase blood pressure; however, at present other non-poisonous plants are used.
The English yew causes miscarriages though it is not used with this aim because of its significant toxicity. As the saying goes, “Abortifacient substances are poisonous both for the fetus and for the mother.”
American and French researchers have recently discovered in the yew a substance called taxol, which has the property of preventing the reproduction of tumor cells (antimitotic action). The application of taxol and its derivatives in cancer treatment is currently being tested with hopeful expectations. This substance is found in minimal amounts in the bark and leaves of the yew; hence the direct use of the plant is useless, besides being toxic due to the taxine.
Therefore, this poisonous plant known as the death tree may contain helpful remedies to save the life of people who have cancer. The vegetal world still keeps many secrets unrevealed.
WARNING! The English yew is a very poisonous plant, except for the red berries covering the seeds. Ingestion of a few leaves may cause death to a child. If poisoning occurs, induce vomiting or apply stomach irrigation, and give high doses of charcoal. The poisoned person must be immediately taken to a hospital.
The Yew and Cancer
The National Cancer Institute of the United States was first to become interested in the yew in 1960. Some scientists discovered that the extract of a yew species (Taxus brevifolia) proved to have a notable antitumor activity on cancerous cells.
In 1971, the active principle of yew extract was identified and named taxol. Its extraction is quite expensive since one kilogram of yew tree is needed to extract 100 mg of taxol. Fortunately, this substance can be chemically synthesized without using the tree bark.
In much of the research conducted, taxol has proven to be effective against advanced ovarian cancer, which resists other treatments, and also against breast cancer with metastasis.
Clinical application of taxol has been stopped while scientists try to decrease its toxic effects: neutropenia (decrease of white blood corpuscles), allergies, nausea, and hair loss.
How to use Yew
- Syrup: Mash the berries (without seeds) and add their weight of sugar and water until dissolved. Drink six to 18 spoonfuls daily.
George D. Pamplona-Roger, M.D. “Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants.” George D. Pamplona-Roger, M.D. Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. Ed. Francesc X. Gelabert. Vols. 1 San Fernando de Henares: Editorial Safeliz, 2000. 336, 337. Print. [English yew]