Only the red part is edible, not the seed inside.

The Yew can kill you, very quickly.

Did that get your attention? Good. It should. There is only one safe, small part of the tree that is edible. The rest is toxic. What’s edible? The fleshy aril around the seed. The seeds are NOT edible though those who have eaten them have said before they died that the seeds had a good flavor. The same has been said of deadly mushrooms. What do chewed seeds do? They stop your heart. Any questions? The leaves are toxic as well killing, besides humans, horses, cattle and pigs. Taxine alkaloids (A and B) are thought to inhibit heart depolarization. The largest concentration is in the seeds. 

Yew Bow

While the aril has a firm texture it falls apart once removed from the seed, is watery and sweet but with almost no flavor. Get your fingers messy: Don’t even think about putting it all in your mouth then spitting the seed out. That’s too dangerous. Take the aril, which looks like a little cup, off the seed, throw the seed away, then eat the aril. I would not be surprised to learn the arils has antioxidants. While the aril is edible the flavor and texture are not WOW. They’re okay… barely. It’s a lot of danger to approach for little pay off.

Now, what if you swallow one seed whole? Those who know say it will probably pass through without a problem. Personally, I would rather throw up than take the chance, or have the stomach pumped out. Chewed seeds or a few ounces of leaves will definitely kill you, or a horse. How toxic is the tree? It is favored by bow makers, and has been since ancient times. However there are reports of some bow makers being killed by the tree’s toxins because they handle the wood so much. Oh… did I mention the yew is a common landscaping ornamental? Surrounding ones house with a deadly hedge is not a good idea.

Poisoning symptoms can include difficulty walking, muscle tremors, convulsions, collapsing, difficult breathing, coldness and heart failure. However the toxin works so quickly some of those symptoms might be skipped.  Dead animals are often found with twigs or leaves still in their mouth.

A yew near Ledbury, Herfordshire, England

That said the Yew tree has a lot of history behind it. The word itself is ancient Germanic and means brown, like the bark. The oldest piece of worked wood in the world is a Yew spearhead dated 450,000 years old. Within written times the European Yew was dedicated to the Erinyes or Furies, goddesses of vengeance for human punishment.  Caesar referenced a Celtic leader named Eburones who poisoned himself with Yew rather than submit to Rome. The Roman historian Florus said that in 22 BC the Cantabrians on the coast of northern Spain killed themselves by sword, fire or Yew rather than surrender to the legate Gaius Furnius. The Astures, also of Spain, when under siege at Mons Medullius also chose to die by Yew than be captured. Yews are among the oldest trees in Britain with several over 1,000 years old and one perhaps 4,000 years old.

Cornucopia II lists two Yews. Of the Taxus baccata (the English Yew) it says on page 240 “the bark is used as a substitute for tea. Fruits are sometimes eaten, however the seeds are considered poisonous.” And of the Taxus cuspidata (the Japanese Yew) it says: “the sweet aril, or fruit pulp, is eaten raw, made into jam, or brewed into wine. Caution is recommended, as the seeds of many species are poisonous.”

All that said Ethnobotanist Dr. Daniel Austin reports the native species were used by Indians for medicine. Eastern tribes used the Taxus canadensis in minute amounts for tea to treat rheumatism, bowel ailments, fevers, colds, scurvy, to rid clots, as a diuretic and to expel afterbirth. However, Dr. James Duke in 2002 wrote T. baccata, T. brevifolia and T. canadensis are too toxic to be used as medicine.

Badger, Taxidea taxus

The study of plants is also the study of language and history. The yew genus is Taxus. That comes from either taxic or toxic which in Greek means “that in which arrows are dipped.” Interestingly the Greek word for bow is toxon and for the Yew taxos. One can see and hear the connection of these words for over 4,000 years. By the way the animal called the Badger is Taxidea taxus, which means the badger hides in the yew forest. I think it is one of a few or the only case in which a plant and an animal have similar scientific names. And while the little fellow to the left looks cute Badgers are reknowed for their ill-temper and brass.

Most Yews used in landscaping are either the European Yew or the Japanese Yew. There are three native Yews to North America, T. brevifolia, T, canadensis, and T. floridana.

Green Deane’s Itemized Plant Profile: Yew

IDENTIFICATION: An evergreen, bark reddish-brown, thin, flaking in thin scales; leaves linear, stiff, one-half to one inch long, two ranked, on twigs; upper surface dark green, lower surface yellow-green, midrib prominent. Fruit comprised of a single stony seed mostly surrounded by  a bright scarlet, thick, ovoid, fleshy cup, the whole .5 to .75 inches long.

T. baccata, the European yew, hardy north to New York, T. cuspidta hardy into southern Canada, T. brevifolia, the western yew, to 75 feet high, forests, wooded slops and ravines, central California to Montana, British Columbia and Alaska. T. canadensis, ground hemlock,  likes marshes, spreading shrub rarely more than 5 feet high, deep woods, Kentucky north to Canada. Taxus floridana is so rare we’ll leave them alone. Yews are mostly found in yards as an ornamental.

TIME OF YEAR: Summer to fall

ENVIRONMENT: Varies by species

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Aril raw. Seeds are deadly. The entire plant is deadly except for the aril.

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 narf7 September 1, 2012 at 17:41

Wonderful post and although I was aware that the Taxus genus were poisonous before…I am not even going to bother with the fruit now because why would you bother for something “sweet and watery” unless it gave you an extra 10 years of life! Very interesting information. I love that Taxus are so easy to grow from cuttings and that they keep on keeping on (mainly because the possums, wallabies, rabbits etc. are obviously a whole lot less stupid than people who eat yews!). I haven’t actually explored the annals of this blog so far and just seeing “White Indigo Berry Has a Dark Side” and “Wild Coffee But Not Kentucky” has me most interested as a horticulturalist AND as someone interested in wild food. Thank you for this most interesting and informative post. Taxus grow well here in Tasmania and there is an amazing Irish Yew in a very old graveyard that is the most wonderful enormous golden tipped representation of Don King! Anything with that much character and staying power is welcome on Serendipity Farm :)

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2 Guest October 2, 2012 at 12:34

Are they more poisonous of ground down mortar and pestle and drinking juice ie.in tea? or better just chewed they are supposed to taste nice arent they? Just wondering I know someone who may be writing a muder mystery.

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3 Green Deane October 6, 2012 at 06:09

Dying is not my area of expertise. Avoiding dying is. The offending chemical is taxine. Death from ingestion is related to the amount ingested and which part. The entire plant is toxic which is a threat to livestock. Humans who have died from it usually ate some seeds. Deatha is sudden, cardiac arrest, usually with no other symptoms. An analysis of matertial in the mouth or stomach usually confirms the consumption. The aril is edible in small amounts, but the alkaloid is concentrated in the seed. If I were writing a mystery novel (and I have written nine of them) I would just toss the nuts in with a few other nuts. Interestingly Yew is not mentioned in Deadly Doses, a writer’s guide to poisons.

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4 WannabeForager October 12, 2012 at 02:02

I remember looking this up. I’ve seen hedges of Yew in front of peoples’ homes on my way to work each day. I noticed the berries (which have come out again this year even more than last year), and I looked up “hollow berries” and “evergreen” or something to that effect. When I saw the pictures of the little red cups and the black seed, I knew it was Yew. And I also found out how poisonous it is. I wouldn’t chance it with the flesh of the fruit. I now refer to it as “Useless Yew” so I can remember it’s poison. I know it’s a bowmaker’s favourite, as there’s a guy where I live who makes bows from Yew. So I guess it’s not totally useless. But I still think it’s a good way to remember!

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5 Angelique November 1, 2012 at 12:34

Yew [arils] are so yummy, and very easy to spit out the seed. It is the sweetest [aril] I have ever eaten, and the texture is not watery so much as syrupy. I encourage people to try it, your eyes will be opened. Putting the thing that kills you in your mouth without giving it the power to kill you is a great way to cheat death :P

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6 Dew December 5, 2012 at 10:32

I foraged some yew fruits today but have not eaten any of them. I need to determine the species that I have. They are ornamentals, but the fruit seed and arils do not look like the ones you have in the picture. The aril is external and it appears the seed is attached at the top… two seperate items that are fused together in the middle (lengthwise).

The best I can describe it is an oblong purple grape about 3/8″ diameter with a length of 5/8″ long attached to a stem. On the very end opposite the stem is a smaller green grape about 1/3 the size attached to the purple grape. The purple aril is soft and smooth and the green part is hard and smooth. Both purple and green parts have a waxy white substance that will scratch off with your finger nail.

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7 Ellen August 30, 2013 at 15:48

I guess that is a Podocarpus rather than Taxus, but I’m no expert.

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8 Green Deane August 30, 2013 at 16:13

My yew article is about the yew (Taxus.) My podocarpus article is about the podocarpus. Neither seed is eaten.

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9 Dew December 5, 2012 at 10:46

ahhhh… found your video on Yew Plum Pine – Podocarpus macrophyllus

now that I know, I’ll try a taste :)

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10 Dew December 5, 2012 at 14:12

The aril of the Podocarpus macrophyllus tastes almost like grapes (seedless) to me. The texture reminds me of the seedless grape also. Tried my first one today! Yummy.

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11 Steven Aelfcyning December 6, 2012 at 13:17

Hi,

I just discovered your wonderful site. I did want to mention that the bow pictured on the Yew page is not a longbow, it’s a modern recurve. The good old English longbow was carved from a single piece of Yew. Its use is credited with the success of the English over the French in the Battle of Agincourt. Robin Hood is supposed to have prefered a “gude bowe of Yew,” too, if you can believe the legends.

Cheers,
Steve

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12 Peace January 30, 2013 at 20:42

Please help!

We have both hemlock (trees) and yew in our area, though the yew is considerably more rare.

Can you tell us how to tell the difference between them when the red fruits are not present to identify the yew?

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13 Green Deane January 30, 2013 at 20:55

I covered that in this November last newsletter:

http://www.eattheweeds.com/newsletter-20-nov-2012/

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14 Em February 1, 2013 at 20:57

I have yews around the yard. Each winter they get eaten by the deer. I haven’t seen any dead yet. How do they get away with that ? :}

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15 Green Deane February 3, 2013 at 23:42

What is deadly as a plant varies from animal to animal. Deer can eat yew. Horses cannot. Humans can eat avocados, nearly no animal can. Birds can eat arsenic. Box turtles can eat mushrooms that would kill us.

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16 Dan May 6, 2013 at 16:38

Why risk it?!!??

Maybe if you were starving and lost in the California mountains for two weeks and could identify the Pacific Yew and it was at the perfect fruiting time and there was no choice but to do something, anything or perish. Other than that it’s just risky behavior.

As a Landscape Architect I have first hand knowledge. A clients gardener for years would prune shrubs and trees and mow the lawns and toss the clippings over the fence for the clients cattle to graze on. The decades old yew trees had never been pruned and the gardener pruned them up a bit to open up the view of the pastures and tossed those clipping over the fence with the lawn clippings.

There happened to be 50 prize young bulls in the pasture that day. They grazed on the yew and grass clippings. The gardener left, his job done for the day. As the clients described to me, they were looking out their windows and noticed a couple of the bulls tettering on their feet. As one of them said “I wonder what’s wrong with those bulls?”, both bulls dropped like stones – then as they watched a couple more dropped. By the time they ran out to the pasture another 10 had dropped – dead by the time they hit the ground, by the time the vet got there all 50 were dead.

Evidently they had only eaten a little bit each while getting to the grass clippings. It didn’t take much and these were animals weighing over 1000 lbs each.

So what would it take to kill a human by accidently ingesting some yew?

Again I state “Why risk it!”

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17 Jesse June 17, 2013 at 19:27

when I read that the spear head was 450,000 years old my eye balls nearly fell out of my head…. I am a metaphysical kinda guy and can dig the fringe so long as its tasteful but that absurd.

A quick google’ing confirms; 450,000 years old must be a typo lol

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18 Marvin L. Zinn January 27, 2014 at 09:10

This is interesting. I got here with research about Taxol, classified as a prescription drug for cancer, from the yew tree. The berries (and especially seeds) must contain the same benefit as the bark.

I have Prostate cancer, and I am not worried about it. Two doctors tried to talk me into immediate surgery, another suggested radiation, all of which I refused. Instead I took two herbs, graviola and turmeric. My symptoms more than a year, stopped in three weeks. (With a lot of three time tests I also know to avoid much sugar and dairy products, or the herbs would fail.)

So despite the danger, I will find the access to perhaps tea made from this fruit or seeds for experiment. (I would NOT use a prescription drug; most of those I already refuse.) If it kills me, I prefer that to surgery. (If I believed doctors I would already have been dead three times, and now from my surgery refusal I am expected dead this year.)

marvin

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19 Tolam June 24, 2014 at 20:48

I grew up in New York City and there was a neighborhood Yew bush that us kids would always snack on. I don’t recall the taste being great, but yes, syrupy. Occasionally I would bite into a seed but would spit it right back out as it was bitter. I guess I dodged some bullets there!

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20 koven August 19, 2014 at 17:34

Would 10g of seeds ( arround 800 seeds )kill you ??

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21 Green Deane August 19, 2014 at 17:38

The yew seeds are good size, approaching a pea. One can kill you. Leave them alone.

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