The Pacific yew is also known as the Western Yew and scientifically it is called Taxus brevifolia. The Pacific yew is a coniferous tree that is indigenous to the Pacific Northwest of North America. The tree can be found growing naturally in southern extreme of Alaska south and ranges to central California generally along the Pacific coastal ranges. The tree may be found growing isolated and separated from the main range at British Columbia and the terrain that is south to central Idaho.
Pacific yew is an evergreen tree covered with leaves throughout the year. It is normally small or medium sized and grows up to a height of 10 to 15 meter and the trunk of the tree is rarely more than 50 cm in width. Pacific yew has a thin peeling bark that is brown in color and bears leaves that are thinning to a point like the head of a lance, even and dark green in color. The leaves are normally one to three cm long and two to three cm in width arranged in a circular spinal pattern on the stem. The leaf bases are subjected to twisting to arrange them in two even rows on both sides of the stem, barring on the vertical top shoots where the spiral pattern is more noticeable.
The seed cones of Pacific yew are extremely adapted to as each cone comprises a single seed that is four to seven mm in length and is partially enclosed by a customized scale that grows into a soft and vivid berry-like formation known as the aril. The aril is eight to fifteen mm in length and broad as well as open at the ending. These arils ripen six to nine months after pollination and the seed contained in it are consumed usually by thrushes (song birds that have slender bills) and other birds. These birds disperse the aril seed wholesome through their droppings. Since the aril seeds take two to three months to mature and the prospects of effective dispersal is enhanced. The male cones of Pacific yew are globoid, three to six mm in width and discard their pollens (powders containing male reproductive elements of the plants) during the onset of spring. The Pacific yew is normally dioecious with male and female flowers growing on different plants. However, exceptions exist and sometimes one may find Pacific yew trees that are monoecious bearing both the male and female flowers. Some plants of the species may even change sex with time.
Local inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest Coast valued the yew wood highly as it was used for manufacturing weapons and other equipment that needed potency and hardiness. Most people living in the coastal areas used the yew wood to make harpoons (a weapon similar to spears), fish spears, and fish clubs and dip net frames. Wedges (a solid block that is thick at one end and thin at the other) prepared with yew wood were used by these people to divide cedars or tall evergreen trees. Interestingly, the native North Americans like the Swinomish, Haida and Tlingit made yew war clubs with the yew wood, while others like Klallam, Kwakiutl, Makah, and Quinault used the yew wood for making canoe paddles. On the other hand, the Makah people liked the yew wood as it was useful for them to make halibut hooks, canoe bailers, dishes and spoons, as well as covered square trinket (jewelry) boxes that were prepared by burning out of one piece of yew log. Members of the Quinault community also used the yew wood to prepare canoe bailers, spoons, needles, mauls, various tool handles, and spring poles for deer traps, awls or sharp pointed tools, dishes, bowls, pegs, drum frames and boxes. Nearly all the native North Americans used the yew wood to make digging sticks to unearth roots and clams (an edible shelled animal). The Cowlitz and Quinault used the yew wood to carve out combs, while the Quinault, Slahelem and Tillamook also prepared tokens for gambling from the yew wood. In addition to these, most native North Americans carved out several traditional or ceremonial objects from the yew wood.
Apart from the many different uses of the yew wood by the native North Americans, the Pacific yew is also valued highly for its numerous medicinal utilities. Many herbalists describe the Pacific yew's remedial properties to be of 'magical nature' and use the tree to pass on potency. Swinomish youth rub the smooth sticks or branches of the tree to against their body while bathing with a view to enhance their potency. On the other hand, the Chehalis compress fresh yew leaves and steep them in water which is used to bathe the infants or elderly. According to their medicine, this 'medicated' water makes the infants and old people to sweat helping them to get rid of all their physical disorders. While the Chehalis never drink the water in which crushed yew leaves have been soaked, members of another community called Klallam crush the yew leaves and steep them in the same manner, boil the water and drink the infusion to alleviate all their internal pains and wounds.
On the other hand, members of the Cowlitz community dampen the yew leaves, pulverize them and then apply the pulp prepared from the leaves on the external wounds. The Quinault people have a slightly peculiar way of healing their wounds. They chew up the yew leaves and then spatter them on the wounds. Although applying the leaves on wound through this method tingles, it is said to be a more effectual way of treating injuries. Again, the Quinault is the only tribe that prepares medications with the bark of the Pacific yew trees. They first peel the bark, dehydrate them in the sun and then boil it in water. The infusion prepared through this process is drunk to treat the lung conditions. Other North Indian tribes like the Makah and Nootka also utilized the needles of the Pacific yew to ferment an astringent shower that helps in drawing affected tissues closer. Earlier, members of the Klallam, Swinomish or Snohomish tribes also smoked the yew either alone or by blending it with other plants.
It is interesting to note that in the earlier days, anyone who collected or traded the yew made use of it for manufacturing bows. In fact, the Pacific yew earned its name Haida denoting bow-plant for this specific property of the tree. Many tribes who once inhabited the extreme interior regions of North America who valued the Pacific yew tree for providing tough and tensile wood for bow making included the Flathead Salish, Nez Perce, Umpqua, Shasta, Wintu, Maidu, and Yahi. Many of these tribes also utilized the Pacific yew for its medicinal properties.
Presently, barring its importance as a source for taxol (a brand for the anti-cancer drug paclitaxel), the Pacific yew has little commercial value. Nevertheless, the Pacific yew is still accepted among many small industries as compared to the other species of yews found worldwide; it is still available in abundance. Hence, even to this day, the Pacific yew is widely used to make musical devices like lutes and other stringed instruments. At the same time, the Pacific yew fulfills much of the limited requirements of wood for making yew bows. On the other hand, the Japanese import the Pacific yew to make the traditional toko poles. Habitually, the Pacific yew has been used by the rural folks in their native areas for making fences and fence posts, firewood and handles of different tools.
As mentioned earlier, the bark of the Pacific yew is a natural source of taxol - a medicine that is used for treating different types of cancers, especially ovarian cancer. In fact, the use of the tree for preparing medicines is only threatening the existence of the species.
The yew was considered to be a tree that provided the source for immortality and considered sacred by the priests of ancient Celtic religion (practiced in Britain, Ireland and Gaul till people of those regions adopted Christianity). Although the Christians later planted in their church yards, the reason for this is mysterious. There are many who say that the move was intended at keeping the cattle away from consuming the plant's poisonous fruits, while others point out that the plants were planted to meet the stable demand for wood for manufacturing superior quality bows. Incidentally, in Latin, the term 'taxa' is derived from the Greek word 'toxon', which is the base word for both 'poison' (toxin) as well as 'bow'. Interestingly, if you believe in myths and legends, you would be happy to learn that the popular archer and fugitive Robin Hood wed under a yew tree! Interestingly, an ancient British ruling protected the yew tree as also its products by imposing penalties on offenders disfiguring wood carvings, doors and furniture made from the yew tree. Even the native American tribes held the yew tree in high esteem and many of them even regarded the yew tree as the chief of all trees. Notwithstanding the numerous uses of the yew tree, the Europeans, much like the native Americans related the vegetation with wars and production of high quality bows.
Researches have established that the amalgam paclitaxel found in the bark of the yew tree possesses properties that help in stabilizing microtubules - the part of the cell that helps in preserving the shape of the cell and also helps in cell division. The compound has been found to fight against certain types of cancers, especially the ovarian and breast types. Interestingly, during the early part of the 1960s, scientists conducted numerous researches on the Pacific yew with a view to discover an effective drug to combat cancer. It was a part of a search to find plants that could fight cancer. And over 20 years hence, scientists took up clinical tests with the Pacific yew to ascertain the plant's cancer fighting properties. Years later, in 1994, scientists were successful in producing paclitaxel synthetically from the Pacific yew needles and the plant's bark amidst apprehensions raised by naturalists that such experiments may lead to the diminishing of the plant number. Pacific needles from a particular species called the T. baccata have been used by physicians to effectively treat several ailments, including tapeworms, epilepsy as well as tonsillitis. However, medical experts and herbal medicine practitioners never recommend the self-use of any Pacific yew product as the yew needles as well as the plant's seeds are known to be poisonous.
The Pacific yew grows naturally in the temperate climate zones in the northern hemisphere. There are other species of the tree which grow in different regions of the world.