Happy New Year to all my readers – may 2015 bring you peace, health and inspiration, and may you encounter remarkable plants and animals to intrigue, delight and fascinate you.
Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
I have always felt a little melancholy at New Year. Maybe it’s because I’m an introvert, and I no longer drink alcohol, both of which make me uneasy in situations of forced jollity and large crowds. Or maybe it’s because January feels more like a time for staying in bed, preferably with an excellent novel and a bowl of syrup pudding and custard, than a time for taking up jogging and eating kale. I feel a little out of step with the current need to be happy and shiny and full of vim on all occasions, and it’s difficult to escape a sneaking suspicion that I am some kind of alien as I watch the end-of-year shenanigans unfold.
So to give myself some perspective I went to see the oldest living thing in London with my long-suffering husband, John. This magnificent Yew tree lives in St Andrew’s churchyard in Totteridge, a twenty-minute bus ride from East Finchley. It has seen at least two thousand New Year’s days come and go, and is still full of fresh growth and vigor. To ensure its health, a team from Kew Gardens visited some thirty years ago and did a little judicious pruning and shoring up of the centre of the plant, which invariably becomes hollow as the plant ages. The trunk is over twenty-six feet in circumference, and the wood is remarkable. In some places, it looks almost as if it is encrusted with sea creatures.
Yew is often found in churchyards. In some cases, it was deliberately planted to provide wood for longbows, but in this and many other cases, the tree long predates the church (there has been some kind of ecclesiastical building here since about 1250). It is very likely that the church was built on a site that was already sacred to the people of the area, and that the tree, then a stripling of just over a thousand years old, would have been locally important as a site for ritual and for meetings. Later, it was a site for the gathering of the Hundred, the medieval equivalent of the Magistrate’s court. In 1722, a baby was found under the tree, and was named ‘Henry Totteridge’ and made a ward of the parish.
Part of the reason for the longevity of Yew is that it is very slow-growing, and some scientists believe that the trees could reach ages of four to five thousand years. The Totteridge Yew is one of ten trees in the UK that date back to before the tenth century. Yew is very resistant to the fungal diseases which can cause the death of other trees by infecting the spot where a branch has dropped off. The tree can also regenerate from cut surfaces and from the base of the trunk even when it is of advanced years.Yew has a long association with pagan rites and beliefs, perhaps because, like Holly, it is evergreen, long-lived and bears berries. The oldest wooden artifact ever found in Europe, a 450,000 year-old spearhead found in Clacton-on-Sea, is made of Yew. All parts of the Yew are poisonous, except for the red flesh on the berry. A chief of the ancient Celtic tribe the Eburones (the ancient word for Yew was Eburos) killed himself by ingesting a toxin from the Yew tree rather than submitting to the Romans. It is known to be poisonous to horses, and the foliage, in hot weather, can produce a gas which is said to cause hallucinations. This same chemical, however, can be used to produce a drug for use in breast cancer, and for a while pharmaceutical companies were traveling the world, looking for substantial Yew forests to buy and destroy. What is new to science is often long-known by local peoples, however, and Yew has long been used by Himalayan people as a treatment for breast and ovarian cancer.
This is not the first time that Yew has been subject to a threat of over-harvesting. Its wood is perfect for the making of longbows, and in the fifteenth century compulsory longbow practice for all adult males was introduced. This depleted the supplies of these slow-growing trees so profoundly that Richard III introduced a ‘tax’, insisting that every ship bringing goods to England had to include ten bowstaves for every tun of goods. During the sixteenth century the supply of Yew dwindled to such an extent that there was none to be had in Bavaria or Austria. The habit of planting Yew trees in churchyards to ensure future demand may have begun during this time.
Yew trees have a dark, sombre aspect to them and yet, as one of our few native conifers, they provide some greenery when the other leaves have fallen. Their red berries provide a useful source of food for the birds, and I have often watched Goldcrests working their way through the needles with their needle-sharp bills, searching for any hibernating insects or badly-hidden cocoons. I shall be keeping my eyes and ears open in future for the high-pitched piping calls of these birds. Goldcrests are the smallest birds in the UK, with each one weighing less than a two-pence piece.There is something about spending time outdoors that soothes the soul, and this is particularly true, I find, when I am in the company of a tree of such remarkable character as the Totteridge Yew. It has experienced so much in its long life that my mind is fairly boggled when I think about it. It was already a thousand years old when the Normans came with their stone masonry and castle-building and taste for wine. How many babies have been borne past it in their mother’s arms for Christening, how many young couples have passed under its branches on their wedding day, how many sombre coffins have been carried under the lych-gate to the freshly-dug graves that surround it? Once, people came up to the church on foot or in horse-drawn carts, where now they swoosh past in cars. If only it could tell me what it has seen. As I go, I rest my hand for a moment on that smooth, rose-pink bark, as I suspect so many have done before me. I feel a sense of calm descend, as if I have been holding my breath for a week, and have finally let it out.
Dear Readers, I am occasionally castigated by your good selves for designating a particular plant as a ‘weed’. People have been roused to fury by my inclusion of Feverfew and Yarrow, Holly and Ivy as ‘weeds’, and I understand how for many people (including me) these plants are helpmates and sources of wonder rather than problematic. You can imagine, then, how nervous I am about including that most venerable of plants, the Yew tree, as a ‘Wednesday Weed’, let alone the oldest Yew in London. However, my point is this: no plant is quintessentially a ‘weed’ – this is a purely human label. There is not a single plant that I have included in this series, from the fecund Duckweed to this week’s remarkable conifer, that doesn’t have much to fascinate and amaze the keen observer. Our urge to classify the natural world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘useful’ and ‘useless’ is what got us into the mess that we’re currently in in the first place. We need to understand the connections between things, even the most commonplace of ‘weeds’, in order to make sensible decisions about everything from the plants in our gardens to the future of the planet. Every week, I learn more about my local environment, but I have also glimpsed the limitless depths that I have yet to understand. This blog has made me humble, which I have grown to think is the only sensible reaction to the complexity and beauty of the natural world.