The bio-diverse cemetery
In the wreath you will find some Yew (taxus baccata)
There are several fine Yew trees growing in Norwood cemetery. They are one of Britain’s oldest trees: some specimens are said to be 5000 years old. The oldest tree in London has been dated at 2000. The yew tree in the churchyard of St Andrew in Totteridge, north London, has a girth of over 8 metres.
The Totteridge Yew
Over the centuries yew has been used to make fine furniture often as drawers on bureaux or as boxes to contain personal belongings or documents. Famously the long bow men used yew in preparing their weapons. The golden colour wood makes a fine contrast on dark mahogany and walnut and is often used as inlays on furniture such as desks. There were also medical usage, a diaphoretic [to induce a sweat], tea made from the leaves was said to help to help in breathing difficulties and to sooth the lining of the stomach and to stop blood in the urine. A poultice of yew leaves was often used by bowmen to heal arrow wounds. The red berry is the only part that is not poisonous but the actual inner seed is very poisonous and so are the bark and needles, so great care has to be taken if handling yew.
As many yew trees pre-date the church with which they are associated it is interesting to reflect that the trees were part of pagan religious worship and many early Christian places of worship took over existing sites. As the sheep wandering in around the church were often poisoned it began the practice of building a hedge or a wall around the church to keep the animals out. This area was convenient for burials which led to the traditional churchyard and the yews that we associate with it.
The needles from yew trees are the source of a chemical of use in cancer research. In the 1960’s research in the USA isolated an extract from yew bark that was effective against tumours. The chemical isolated is docetaxel; this can be produced from yew or by synthetic means. Today Taxol is an important treatment for breast and ovarian cancers. Another drug, Taxotere is made from the needles of the common yew.