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Taxus baccata - common yew, English yew

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The yew is the longest-lived of all European conifers. It can achieve heights of 15-20m and the oldest individuals are estimated to be 1200-1500 years old. Yew trees have been highly respected and valued from pre-historic times, and the species is also regarded as a symbol of death, and of immortality. The wood itself, tough and durable, has been used in making lutes, and especially in the manufacture of longbows and crossbows. The war-filled history of Europe, with its demand for these weapons, lead to the almost total destruction of yew stands.

Thus it is a rare species in the wild. However, it is extremely popular as an evergreen ornamental, and there are dozens of varieties available, varying in shape, size, habit, and colour. It has been widely used in formal gardens, as a subject for topiary, tolerating trimming into geometric and other ornamental shapes.

The common yew grows naturally in North Africa, South-East Asia and in most of Europe. It is somewhat frost tender and grows naturally in Finland only on Ahvenanmaa (Åland Island). When planted inland it is frost tender. At Mustila it survives the winters only as a flattened shrub under snow cover.


Taxus cuspidata - Japanese yew

The yew genus (Taxus) includes 8 species which are very similar in habit and in characteristics. They are all poisonous, slow-growing evergreen shrubs or trees which live long. They are all dioecious, i.e. the male plants produce pollen, while the separate female plants develop red berry-like cones in autumn, which are in fact naked seeds almost totally enclosed in a fleshy red aril.

In Finland the hardiest of the genus - and certainly the most planted in the 1900s - is the Japanese yew, which is native to the moist, fertile, mixed and conifer forests of eastern Asia. It is usually shrub-like in form but can grow into a tree up to 15 metres, with long, spreading, up-turned branches, like so many Far Eastern conifers. The needles are a paler green than those of the European yew (Taxus baccata).

The Scot Robert Fortune brought the Japanese yew to Europe in the 1860s. Hardier than the European species, it became very popular. The first seeds of Japanese yew came to Mustila in 1906 from the Kii Peninsula of Central Honshu Island in Japan. The plants grown from these seeds are now tree-like in habit, and can be seen on the west side of the stream running through Tammimetsä (Oak Forest). Other provenances have been tried later throughout the Arboretum, and they all grow more successfully than the European species.


Taxus brevifolia - Pacific or Western yew

The Pacific yew is native to the Pacific coast of North America, as the name implies. It is a slow-growing shrub or small tree of rather irregular habit. Like the other yews, it is long-lived and can live 400 years. However, it gradually rots and becomes hollow, and the exact age of old specimens is impossible to estimate accurately.

Pacific yew is rare in Finland and is not very common in European nursery catalogues, either. At Mustila there is only a single old shrub, which is low, hardly more than a metre, but seems to thrive. It can be distinguished quite easily from the other yews by its shorter, broader needles.

Taxol, a drug effective in treating cancer, has been extracted from the bark of the Pacific yew but is nowadays produced semi-synthetically, saving the species from near extinction. The native peoples of North America used the hard wood for harpoons and bows, for example.


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