Originally printed in the March 3, 2003 edition of the Illinois Valley News
The Indians who lived in the coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest had a few advantages over the Plains Indians. They did not have buffalo, pronghorn antelope, or horses. They did have salmon, which they did not have to chase. They also had a greater variety of plants which provided tools, fuel, food, weapons, building materials, clothing and medicines. Some of these plants had multiple uses and the yew tree is one which had many functions.
Western Yew or Pacific Yew, as it is sometimes called, is a small tree, seldom over 50 feet tall. Its short pointed needles are arranged in two flattened rows and are soft and flexible. The bark is made of thin, paper like scales, and is a purplish- brown color. Yew trees produce bright red berries, instead of cones, and only on the female trees. Male trees produce pollen cones which are smaller than the berries and pale yellow in color.
Western Yew is the only member of the Yew family found in western Oregon and the red berry separates it from other conifer trees. The berry looks like a red huckleberry but it has a large hole or pit which contains a single seed. The seed is poisonous but the red fruit is edible and Indians would collect them in large numbers. Women wouldn’t eat many because of the danger of sterility which was associated with large quantities.
Yew wood is very hard and is able to be highly polished. Heartwood, in the center of the trunk, is rose-red in color, while the sapwood is more yellow. The Indians would use the wood to trade with more eastern tribes and it was used for totem poles, paddles, harpoons, digging sticks, canoe frames, pegs, and even needles. But it was in making bows that the yew wood was most valued. The longbows of old England and Robin Hood fame were made of European Yew and wooden bows made of yew are still very popular today.
The characteristics of the tree bark is the cause for the destruction of many yew trees in the early 1990s. In 1971 an article was published describing the chemical “Taxol” and its anti-cancer properties. Further studies were completed and the National Cancer Institute issued a contract with Bristol Myers – Squibb. for the clinical development of taxol. The testing led to a high demand for yew bark, which could only be obtained by cutting down the trees. 12,000 trees would be required to produce about 9 pounds of taxol. Fortunately other sources of taxol have been located. One of these is a European shrub, but taxol has also been produced synthetically, therefore the demand for yew trees has been greatly reduced.
Western Yew was probably observed by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804-05, but they called it a pine and no specimens were preserved. In 1834 Thomas Nuttall, an English botanist, came to Oregon with the Wyeth Expedition. He made the first official scientific description of the plant and called it Taxus brevifolia. This is the source for the name taxol, which is the chemical extracted from the bark. “Taxus” has two meanings in Greek. It can refer to grouping or arrangement and this is the basis for taxidermy or taxonomy. “Taxus” is also the Greek word for the yew tree. “Brev” is Latin for short, while “folia” is Latin for leaf. This gives it the name of the yew tree with short needles.
Yew trees are not abundant but they are found at low elevations where adequate water is available and where taller trees provide shade and protection from wind. In the Illinois Valley there are many locations, Grayback Campground and the back trail at Lake Selmac are two areas where yew trees are easily seen.