The Yew tree is a coniferous tree which can be found all over Europe, Northwest Africa and into central Asia. Its normal form is of a smallish tree up to 25 meters tall with a thin scaly brown bark which sheds in small flakes. The leaves are a flat dark green; they are poisonous, as are most parts of the plant except the reddish fruit which surrounds the seeds. The leaves are so poisonous that even when dried they are still dangerous especially to horses with cattle being more tolerant of the taxine poison they contain, death comes rapidly from heart failure following respiratory problems and muscle tremors.
In traditions several celtic leaders used Yew to poison themselves rather than surrender to the Romans and Yew trees can be traditionally found in British Church yards. Since the trees are very long lived and slow growing many actually predate the churches they are in the grounds of. Many suggest they were used by Pagan faiths to make ancient burial sites as a symbol of long life and more pragmatically as they would have discouraged cattle from grazing on the burial site; it was common for early Christian churches to be built on existing pagan sites as part of establishing religious dominance. In warfare the Yew was associated with the English and Welsh longbow as the heartwood made a very good material for longbow making, although much of the wood would be discarded and the trade lead to a massive reduction in the numbers of native Yew trees during the Middle Ages. Medicinally a chemotherapy drug Pacilitaxel can be synthesized from a extract from the common Yew
What Culpepper says
Description. It grows to be an irregular tree, spreading widley into branches. The leaves are long, narrow, and placed with a beautiful regularity. The flowers are yellowish, and the berries are surrounded with a sweet juicy matter.
Place. We have it growing in woods, and in the gardens, but its usual ancient residence is the church-yard: conjectures upon the antiquity and origin of which plantatin, has brought forth much pedantic nonsense; Gray observes this in the Grave, a Poem, when he says,
"Well do I know thee by thy trusty Yew,
"Shading for years thy gloomy church-yard view;
"Cheerless, unsocial plant, that loves to dwell
"Where scatter'd bones man's dissolution tell".