Taxus baccata

Taxaceae (yew family)
Europe, Asia, North Africa

Once one becomes familiar with the yew it is readily recognized by its dark green dense appearance. The needles are about an inch long, paler underneath, and may be in flat sprays. Male and female trees occur; the flowers are small and scaly, but the fruit is a very noticeable red fleshy aril containing a hard-shelled poisonous seed. The leaves are also poisonous to animals that eat them, and Julius Caesar reported that the Gaulish chieftain Catuvolcus committed suicide by eating yew. See three specimens at the front of Kingscote Gardens and another across the driveway from the southwest corner of the building. In Palo Alto, a 25-foot-tall multitrunk T. baccata grows at the Museum of American Heritage, 351 Homer Avenue. The tree undoubtedly was planted soon after Dr. Tom Williams, one of Palo Alto’s early physicians, built the structure as his home in 1907.

T. baccata ‘Stricta’ (also called ‘Fastigata’), the Irish yew, was among the early university plantings and may still be seen framing doorways of some older campus buildings (the ones at the entrance to Roble Gym and Dance Studio were removed, probably during the 2014–2016 renovation, when the landscaping was “rehabilitated in the spirit of the original design”). See it used as the backdrop to the pond at Kingscote Gardens. More than 200 Irish yews from cuttings of plants that originated at Muckross House, Ireland, form the Yew Allee at Filoli in Woodside. The yews planted as a hedge on Serra Mall along the Lou Henry Hoover Building are cultivars of T. cuspidata, Japanese yew.

The wood is famous for hardness, durability, and versatility. Bows were made of yew in antiquity, according to Virgil, and yews also armed English longbowmen. Yews were planted all over England as a military measure, and survive today, in protected places, especially churchyards, where their dark and somber appearance is an unintended consequence of old wars. Virgil also comments on their appearance:

Est via declivis funesta nubila taxo.
Ducit ad infernos per muta silentia sedes.

“A downhill path is shaded by the funereal yew, it leads through soundless silence to the nether regions.” The cypress, the goldenrain, pagoda, and mayten trees have also been planted as memorials.

Name derivation: Taxus – The Latin name for yew tree; baccata – berry-bearing; Fastigata = with upright branches.

About this Entry: The main text of this entry is from the book Trees of Stanford and Environs, by Ronald Bracewell, published 2005. Removal of Roble pair noted Aug 2018 by Sairus Patel.