Yew trees are a living mass of contradictions. They are male and female. They are poisonous and medicinal. They grow in graveyards, yet are commonly known as the trees of life. They have been called sacred, yet they are uprooted.
Yew trees need help because, although some of them are among the oldest living things on earth, their days are numbered. Last year, about 38 yews up to 300-years-old were destroyed at Hampton Court Palace because they did not conform to the re-creation of the 18th-century Privy Gardens. Only ardent campaigning has recently removed the threat to the yew under which King John is thought to have signed the Magna Carta in 1215.
The tree at Ankerwyke, near Runnymede, was already around 1,700 years old when a convent was founded next to it in about 1160. Today, with a girth of 31 feet, it is an estimated 2,700 years old.
The Ankerwyke yew was one of about 1,000 aged more than 1,000- years-old in Britain before the Second World War. That figure had halved by the mid-1970s, and now the race is on to safeguard the remaining ancient yews, and to plant new ones.
Schools could help to promote this endangered tree, by understanding its historical, geographical, natural and social importance, through local study and action, according to the Conservation Foundation which is currently looking for sponsorship to cover an education and planting programme.
"We are looking for suggestions for sites where we can plant 2,000 yews for the millenium," says Conservation Foundation director David Shreeve. "They can be measured as a maths exercise, their properties analysed in science, and their heritage considered in history lessons."
Prize bows were fashioned out of yews throughout centuries of warring with bows and arrows; some historians believe that Noah's Ark was built of yew wood and the Druids venerated them the oldest yew tree plantation, where there are trees of over 2,000-years-old, is called Druid's Grove.
Although yew berries are poisonous, the tree has medicinal properties. Over the years it has been used to treat a variety of complaints from stomach ache to rheumatism. Today it provides taxol, an anti-cancer drug, which was earlier this year licensed in Britain to treat advanced ovarian cancer, although in spite of its life-giving properties, it is still closely linked with death. Why, for instance did mourners in centuries past carry yew twigs and leaves at funerals?
Such questions are examined with numerous references in a new book, The Sacred Yew: rediscovering the ancient Tree of Life through the work of Allen Meredith (Penguin, Pounds 7.99). This book by Anand Chetan and Diana Brueton is based on a crusade by Allen Meredith to save yew trees all over the world, from Ireland to the Himalayas.
Meredith found ways to measure their age through growth patterns and to decifer some of the legends which have grown up around the tree in general. The Fortingall yew in Tayside for instance, is about 5,000 years old and said to have been where Pontius Pilate played as a child. He was born in the Roman camp, and may well have been one of the first in a succession to scratch his initials in the youthful bark.
The Conservation Foundation has produced a yew tree plate as one way to raise money. That should be on sale by National Tree Week, November 23 to December 4, whose theme this year is, appropriately, Family Trees.
For free factsheet on how to record yew trees, send an sae to the Conservation Foundation, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR. Tel: 071-823 8842.