The Miraculous Pacific Yew

Pacific Yew western Taxus brevifolia northwest oregon columbia county

The Pacific Yew is my favorite tree. While the Yew’s appearance is understated compared to the towering conifers of our forests, its impact has been felt worldwide.

Taxus brevifolia of the Yew family fills a unique niche here as an understory specialist. It is built to survive under the shadows of the douglas-firs, cedars, and hemlocks. The Pacific Yew rarely grows to heights above fifty feet and has scraggly branches poking out in all directions in an attempt to grab the drips of sunshine let through the canopy of the taller trees. Its needles are flat and thicker than the look-alike needles of the Western Hemlock, and its flaky bark uncovers a deep red-purple underneath. The Yew produces small red berries that birds and chipmunks love, though the seeds and every other part of the tree are poisonous to humans.

Pacific Yew Western Taxus brevifolia oregon northwest columbia county
the bark and needles of the Yew tree hold some amazing secrets

Human history with the Pacific Yew has been up, down, and up again. Indigenous people utilized the strong yet elastic wood for a myraid of rot-resistant tools, notably the Yew Longbow, while its bark and needles were used for medicinal purposes. But our own loggers did not value Yew as its short twisty scraggly nature did not make good lumber, thus it was usually eliminated during clearcuts and not replanted.

A new threat to the Yew’s existence came in the 1980s when a drug called Taxol was developed. Isolated from the Pacific Yew bark, Taxol inhibits cancer cells and became a key treatment for ovarian, breast, esophageal, lung, cervical, skin, bladder, and pancreatic cancers. The discovery showed how important it is to preserve even the “not commercially valuable” plants of the forest, yet ironically this cure was a curse to the Yew’s existence as the medicinal harvest of the now-rare tree could not meet the demand. Luckily a partial synthesization process for Taxol was eventually developed using a similar compound from English Yew plantations. This relinquished the need to destroy hundreds of thousands of Pacific Yews, and now we can all benefit from this incredible forest discovery without decimating the natural ecosytem.

Still, this history of clearcuts and cancer drug harvest has left Pacific Yews rare in the Oregon Coast Range. Most spots I’ve found them in are older forests or steep creek drainages, where they provide a key function in giving understory shade to streams and thus maintain cool water temperatures. A wonderful local spot to see the Yew is McCormick Park in St. Helens. After crossing the bridge from the main parking lot, you can hike the trails of the disc golf course and find a dozen Pacific Yews of varying sizes scattered about.

If you would like to grow your own Pacific Yew they are on the tree list at the Scappoose Bay Watershed’s biannual native plant sale this Saturday at the Scappoose High School:

I grabbed a couple at the Spring sale along some other native trees and they are doing great. One tree at a time, we can restore this life-saving understory treasure to our local forests.

Published by mattyd112


6 thoughts on “The Miraculous Pacific Yew

  1. Make sure you understand how poisonous yews are. I am beginning week 6 with sores from a yew. I scratched my arm from a yew and infection entered my bloodstream just by contacting the yew. Five days later I woke up with a horrible itching rash and then multiple sores.
    I planted these yews 35 years ago and have trimmed them every year with no issues. I recently scratched my arm on the yews while connecting my garden hose to an outside faucet. I do not have allergies nor am I overly susceptible to rashes, etc. This is the most horrible itching rash and deep sores imaginable. I received a steroid shot, oral steroids, antibiotics for a week and topical antibiotic cream after 2 visits to the doctor. I am now in to week #6 and the deep sores are finally beginning to dry up. I would never again plant any kind of yews in my yard. The dires look like pictures of ringworm. Red sores in the middle surrounded by a circle of inflamed hard red tissue.


  2. I came across your article trying to ID a tree next to our house in Ohio. Your pictures are spot on, really nice article. But what is this pacific yew doing in Ohio? Lol. Every year it looks dead all winter, but bounces back each spring! We cheer it on, it looks like such an underdog- but the birds love it come spring. Guessing it is around 30-40 feet high. Skinny thing grappling for sun amongst the other trees (pine, oak) but strong. Thanks for your article!


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