Wood Science 101 (18) - The Yew of Olde
Dear Chuck, I loved the article on Yew wood. I have a question. Taxus, poison, is it the basis for "Taxotere" a chemotherapy drug. I had to endure a couple of rounds with the "bugger juice" and it about killed me. Just wondered.
Also, I grew up in England and lived very close to Kingly Vale on the South Downs. There are a few very old Yew Trees still there, the area was decimated by Henry II outfitting his archers with strong bows - the forest never recovered. Yew trees were really hated by my father who said the ground was poisoned after a yew was planted - and at my house this is certainly so, very little else has been successful after I "busted a gut" getting one out on the front of my house.
Love your articles...Wendy, wife of he who get-eth your epistles....Thanks for your note, Wendy. It gives me a chance to expand on the points you've raised.
Yew is indeed a rich wood. The taxine in yew that is so toxic to humans and animals has, in fact, been of scientific interest in cancer research since the early 1960's. It was then that a botanist named Arthur S. Barkley collected a sample of Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia) among four hundred other species, and from that sample the unique story of yew in the fight against cancer began. A drug called paclitaxel was developed from certain taxine extracted from the bark of the yew, and the drug was used for decades against breast, ovarian, and lung cancer. But by the 1990's, a movement had sprung up against the harvesting of the paclitaxel, more commonly called taxol, because the harvesting of the drug resulted in the death of the trees from which it was harvested. Pacific yew, which had been on the decline for centuries, was listed on the IUCN "Red List" of near-threatened species.
However, in the good way that necessity always leads to invention, other, similar drugs were synthesized from species such as hazel (Corylus spp.) and the more common European yew (Taxus baccata). The Taxotere drug you endured (also marketed as Docetaxel and Docecad) is an esterified product of 10-deacetyl baccatin III, which is extracted from the renewable and more readily available leaves of Taxus baccata. So you can feel good that your treatment was derived from a sustainable process and that for the foreseeable future, others will be able to share in your treatment, rough as it was. Hopefully, its work is done and you'll not need to endure it again.
Now, on the other, more delightful point you raised from your childhood memories. Yes, yew has a storied history in England, including the fact that yew trees were planted around most of the old cemeteries in the country so that the prolific roots, of which we've already spoken, could both grow through the eyes of the dead to prevent them from seeing their way back to earth, and to prevent them from rising from the ground. Both you and I could testify to the strength of that yew root system. And, as a bonus, the poisonous yew acted as a great passive deterrent to cattle which liked to trample sacred ground for the fresh grass. Even cattle are apparently smart enough to learn to avoid things that kill their buddies.
But the greatest and most famous use of yew was for the the longbows of the archers of England.
What of the bow? The bow was made in England:Of true wood, of yew wood, The wood of English bows;So men who are freeLove the old yew tree
And the land where the yew tree grows.
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The White Company, Chapter Six.These longbows were things of legend, as were the men that wielded them. Here's a great little story from The White Company that left an indelible imprint on millions of young readers over more than a century, back before the invention of the cellphone turned their interest to other things...
A sunburnt and black-eyed Brabanter had stood near the old archers, leaning upon a large crossbow and listening to their talk, which had been carried on in that hybrid camp dialect which both nations could understand. He was a squat, bull-necked man, clad in the iron helmet, mail tunic, and woollen gambesson of his class. A jacket with hanging sleeves, slashed with velvet at the neck and wrists, showed that he was a man of some consideration, an under-officer, or file-leader of his company.
"I cannot think," said he, "why you English should be so fond of your six-foot stick. If it amuse you to bend it, well and good; but why should I strain and pull, when my little moulinet will do all for me, and better than I can do it for myself?"
"I have seen good shooting with the prod and with the latch," said Aylward, "but, by my hilt! camarade, with all respect to you and to your bow, I think that is but a woman's weapon, which a woman can point and loose as easily as a man."
"I know not about that," answered the Brabanter, "but this I know, that though I have served for fourteen years, I have never yet seen an Englishman do aught with the long-bow which I could not do better with my arbalest. By the three kings! I would even go further, and say that I have done things with my arbalest which no Englishman could do with his long-bow."
"Well said, mon gar.," cried Aylward. "A good cock has ever a brave call. Now, I have shot little of late, but there is Johnston here who will try a round with you for the honor of the Company."
"And I will lay a gallon of Jurancon wine upon the long-bow," said Black Simon, "though I had rather, for my own drinking, that it were a quart of Twynham ale."
"I take both your challenge and your wager," said the man of Brabant, throwing off his jacket and glancing keenly about him with his black, twinkling eyes. "I cannot see any fitting mark, for I care not to waste a bolt upon these shields, which a drunken boor could not miss at a village kermesse."
"This is a perilous man," whispered an English man-at-arms, plucking at Aylward's sleeve. "He is the best marksman of all the crossbow companies and it was he who brought down the Constable de Bourbon at Brignais. I fear that your man will come by little honor with him."
"Yet I have seen Johnston shoot these twenty years, and I will not flinch from it. How say you, old war-hound, will you not have a flight shot or two with this springald?"
"Tut, tut, Aylward," said the old bowman. "My day is past, and it is for the younger ones to hold what we have gained. I take it unkindly of thee, Samkin, that thou shouldst call all eyes thus upon a broken bowman who could once shoot a fair shaft. Let me feel that bow, Wilkins! It is a Scotch bow, I see, for the upper nock is without and the lower within. By the black rood! it is a good piece of yew, well nocked, well strung, well waxed, and very joyful to the feel. I think even now that I might hit any large and goodly mark with a bow like this. Turn thy quiver to me, Aylward. I love an ash arrow pierced with cornel-wood for a roving shaft."
"By my hilt! and so do I," cried Aylward. "These three gander-winged shafts are such."
"So I see, comrade. It has been my wont to choose a saddle-backed feather for a dead shaft, and a swine-backed for a smooth flier. I will take the two of them. Ah! Samkin, lad, the eye grows dim and the hand less firm as the years pass."
"Come then, are you not ready?" said the Brabanter, who had watched with ill-concealed impatience the slow and methodic movements of his antagonist.
"I will venture a rover with you, or try long-butts or hoyles," said old Johnston. "To my mind the long-bow is a better weapon than the arbalest, but it may be ill for me to prove it."
"So I think," quoth the other with a sneer. He drew his moulinet from his girdle, and fixing it to the windlass, he drew back the powerful double cord until it had clicked into the catch. Then from his quiver he drew a short, thick quarrel, which he placed with the utmost care upon the groove. Word had spread of what was going forward, and the rivals were already surrounded, not only by the English archers of the Company, but by hundreds of arbalestiers and men-at-arms from the bands of Ortingo and La Nuit, to the latter of which the Brabanter belonged.
"There is a mark yonder on the hill," said he; "mayhap you can discern it."
"I see something," answered Johnston, shading his eyes with his hand; "but it is a very long shoot."
"A fair shoot—a fair shoot! Stand aside, Arnaud, lest you find a bolt through your gizzard. Now, comrade, I take no flight shot, and I give you the vantage of watching my shaft." As he spoke he raised his arbalest to his shoulder and was about to pull the trigger, when a large gray stork flapped heavily into view skimming over the brow of the hill, and then soaring up into the air to pass the valley. Its shrill and piercing cries drew all eyes upon it, and, as it came nearer, a dark spot which circled above it resolved itself into a peregrine falcon, which hovered over its head, poising itself from time to time, and watching its chance of closing with its clumsy quarry. Nearer and nearer came the two birds, all absorbed in their own contest, the stork wheeling upwards, the hawk still fluttering above it, until they were not a hundred paces from the camp. The Brabanter raised his weapon to the sky, and there came the short, deep twang of his powerful string. His bolt struck the stork just where its wing meets the body, and the bird whirled aloft in a last convulsive flutter before falling wounded and flapping to the earth.
A roar of applause burst from the crossbowmen; but at the instant that the bolt struck its mark old Johnston, who had stood listlessly with arrow on string, bent his bow and sped a shaft through the body of the falcon. Whipping the other from his belt, he sent it skimming some few feet from the earth with so true an aim that it struck and transfixed the stork for the second time ere it could reach the ground. A deep-chested shout of delight burst from the archers at the sight of this double feat, and Aylward, dancing with joy, threw his arms round the old marksman and embraced him with such vigor that their mail tunics clanged again. "Ah! camarade," he cried, "you shall have a stoup with me for this! What then, old dog, would not the hawk please thee, but thou must have the stork as well. Oh, to my heart again!"
"It is a pretty piece of yew, and well strung," said Johnston with a twinkle in his deep-set gray eyes. "Even an old broken bowman might find the clout with a bow like this."Now that's a story worthy of its wood. Wendy, Sir Conan and I dedicate it to the memory and good old common sense of your father.
And for everyone else, here's a pretty good video on yew from the land of the longbow.