The Thirteen Trees
of the
Ogham Moon Calendar


The Five Trees
of Solstice
and Equinox

The Vowels


The Half Year
Ruling Trees


The Sacred One



Original artwork © Ruby Clark 2012

Yew   -   Ioho

Ogham letter I         Ruler of the Winter Solstice 21st December

Associated festival:  Yule - 21st December - Longest Night
Samhain - 31st October - All Hallows Eve

Powers:      Protection from Negative Spirits,     Longevity,    
Re-incarnation & work with ancestor spirits
,     Wisdom

Yew twig with berries ©vcsinden2012

"Of vast circumference and gloom profound
This solitary Tree! -a living thing
Produced too slowly ever to decay;
Of form and aspect too magnificent
To be destroyed. ......."

   Extract from Wordsworth's 'Yew Trees'


    Taxus Baccata - Yew. Trees of such ancient wisdom and so many gnarled centuries that we can only stare in awe.

   Young yew tree at Headcorn church in Kent ©vcsinden2012 Synonymous in our modern world with an aspect of doom and certainly of gloom, its leaf cover so dense that it casts a shadow which no young plants can penetrate. A shade and a silence in-keeping with  crumbling churchyards where the most venerable stand, germinating there many centuries before the first stones of the ancient church walls were laid into place.

Yew and the Ogham magic - Ioho ©vcsinden2012 This native British evergreen enjoys soils which are quite well-drained - sandy, limey and chalky.
It doesn’t grow to great heights like the mighty oaks, mature yews being between 25 to 45 feet on average (9 – 14 metres) – but it makes up for lack of height with enormous girth. Anything up to 52 round (about 16 metres) has been recorded.


The magnificent Yew at St Mary's Church, Eastling, Kent.  June 2012

    The trunks of yew are most unusual, consisting of several shoots which have grown separately or rooted from mature branches touching the earth beneath and have gradually  mingled together. They often decay from the inside and leave great hollows, while more shoots grow vertically up the older trunks.

The oldest yew - Crowhurst ©vcsinden2012
Yew tree at Le Haye de Routot from 'Lost in a dream'

The Crowhurst Yew,
showing multiple trunks joined as one.

Tiny chapel at Le Haye-de-Routot in France.
Image source LostInaDream.

    In some instances, the hollows are so vast that little rooms have been made inside them, with a bench, a table, or an altar. It is easy to see where fairy tales have sprung up around them like the shoots – tales of crones and faere-folk, usually malicious, making homes in the hollows or hiding there until moonlight lights the old stones. Some tales tell of the roots making their way through graves and seeking any nourishment there!  yew sprig ©vcsinden2012

     The dense dome-like crowns of Ioho are made up of millions of 2 inch (5cm) flat needle-like leaflets growing each side of short stems. They are very dark green throughout the year, gradually falling to make deep, rusty brown carpets under the spreading canopies.  

yew flowers, female, in February ©vcsinden2013
Female yew flowers in mid February


Tiny flowers arrive in early spring, greenish white
on the male tree, producing small pollen carrying catkins. The female tree has little yellow flowers that will form fruits – a brilliant red fleshy ‘cup’ or ‘aril’ holding a black berry-like seed.

The red flesh is sweet and viscous and much sought after by thrushes, blackcaps and other birds. The birds disperse the seeds undigested, but softened, helping the first shoot to sprout. 


English lutes from yew wood - handmade at Lues and
Yew lutes from English lute and guitar makers
Stephen Barber and Sandi Harris

Yew - ancient bark ©vcsinden2012


Brown, orange, grey and purplish shades are mixed in the scaly, papery bark of the trunks.


   Yew wood is very hard and long lasting. Being so dense it will sink in water. The wood was not useful for building because each trunk, as mentioned, is made of numerous grown shoots, but it made fine stakes and fence or gate posts. Great care must be taken when working with the wood as, like the rest of the tree, it is toxic.

   When carved it shows its golden, orange, reddish colours and decorative markings and is much sought after from smaller objects such as bowls, musical instruments or sacred items.

 Longbow of yew - handmade at Sylvan Archery Historically yew wood was favourite for making weapons, whether spears, handles for knives or  English long-bows. The Yew bow at left is by British Craftsmen 'Sylvan Archery'
“And hempen-strung long-bows,
Of hard, healthy yew.”

Quote from the 17th century poet Mary Macleod in the collection of early celtic poetry Lyrat Celtica

   Being a ‘Fair Maid of Kent’ I include this extract from ‘The Fairy Queen and the Royal Kentish Bowmen’ to be found in The Kentish Garland Vol , edited by Julia H L de Vaynes

“We’ll nerve each arm with ancient pow’r
To bend the toughest Yew:
And consecrate that happy hour
When Kent’s first arrow flew.

Be it mine alone from my airy throne,
To chaunt the victor’s high renown.
To hey, ho, nonny no, Merry be and bonny O,
Hail to the Kentish bow.”

     The oldest wooden artefact excavated in Britain is made of yew, proving the long-lasting qualities. It’s thought to be the tip of a spear and was found in an Essex river-bed.
    If you follow this link, you can find a picture of it, strictly copyrighted so I have not used it here.

   The remains of long bows made from yew have been discovered in many places in Europe, sometimes accompanied by arrows, their tips poisoned with the yew’s toxins. Pollen from yews has been found during geological studies dating from the ice-age.

    You may have heard about the campaign led by biologist David Bellamy, begun more than twenty years ago, where villages and churches were encouraged to replant yews which once grew there. This had quite a success. Ancient yews still going strong were also reported, mapped and dated, and proof of age given on a certificate for display.

yew wood bowls - magnificent - by Ben McLellan at One Stop Wood
Handmade yew wood bowls by Ben McLellan 
(Apologies - no longer any link information)


from Robert Graves' version of 'Cad Goddeu'  -'The Battle of the Trees'  See my Ogham Intro page.



    Yew Healing & Medicine

     Crowhurst Yew - inside looking out  ©vcsinden2012Yew wood as a wand or talisman can be a powerful tool in magic and magical mind-healing processes, but in reality the whole tree is highly poisonous and is not used in modern herbal medicine! Even the dust from the saw-blade can be dangerous if inhaled. This is part of the reason for its nickname ‘The Death Tree’
I love this extract from Culpeper’s 18th century ‘Complete Herbal’ – it is very descriptive, so I give it to you in full …..

‘This is a tree of Saturn. The leaves are said to be poisonous ; but the wood, if it grew with more regularity, would be very valuable. This tree, though it has no place among medicinal plants, yet it does not deserve (at least in our climate), so bad a character as the ancients gave it, viz, a most poisonous vegetable, the berries of which threaten present death to man or beast that eat them ; many have eaten them in this country and survived.

A sprig of yew in October ©vcsinden2012However that may be, it has very powerful qualities, that rise by distillation. In this form, it is the most active vegetable poison known in the whole world, for in a small dose it instantly induces death with- out any previous disorder ; and its deleterious power seems to act upon the nervous system, without exciting the least inflammatioo in the part to which it more immediately enters. It totally differs from opium and all other sleepy poisons, for it does not bring on the lethargic symptoms, but more effectually penetrates and destroys the vital functions, without immediately affecting the animal.
These observations are made as a caution against any rash application of it, for, though it is sometimes given usefully in obstructions of the liver and bilious complaints, those experiments seem too few to recommend it to be used without the greatest caution.’

    The Physicians of Myddvae, herbalists working in the 13th century, left records of their cures and suggestions which were collected and copied down as part of The Red Book of Hergest . Here is their remedy for sterility in a woman -

‘A sterile woman may have a potion prepared for her by means of the following herbs, viz:—St. John's wort, yew, agrimony, amphibious persicaria, creeping cinque foil, mountain club moss, orpine and pimpernel, taking an emetic in addition.’    

Image source here

      In recent years it has been found that taxol, a chemical found in the bark of the Yew, inhibits cell growth and cell division, and has some promise in the fight against cancer. The biggest problem is that such a huge amount of bark is needed to produce even small amounts of taxol.

     Over the last forty years, an extraction of taxol from the Pacific Yew has gradually been made into a successful 21st century drug known as Paclitaxel to treat gynaecological cancers. Sadly the amount of trees killed for extraction is vast – and a synthetic form of the drug hasn’t yet been properly achieved. The International Union for Conservation of Nature named taxus brevifolin as an endangered species in 2011. You can read more in an article from the Guardian here. 



    Yew Myth, Spirituality and Folklore Tradition
    Element:  Air              Ruling Planet: Jupiter         Gender: Masculine        

The 'Yew Tree Door' at the rear of St Edward's Church, Stowe ©vcsinden2012
The magical 'Yew Tree Door'
St Edward's Church, Stowe. July 2012


  Ancient and wise, the Yew is respected as one of the five magical trees of Ireland, as one of the nine woods to be burned in the solstice fires and as Ioho is one of the trees of Ogham magic to rule over its own Solstice day.

    To the British, yew has endless associations through history with church lands. So many trees with centuries of growth are found in old churchyards that it would be almost impossible to list them. Even more, now removed or perished, can be found in early church records.

      Unfortunately there is no absolutely reliable documentation for the particular reason WHY they are there. Perhaps, because of their long life they were taken as symbols of immortality. Naturalists are now sure that many of the oldest actually pre-date the building of the church itself. The most fascinating are the places where a complete ring or oval of seven vast yews surround the building, and it’s believed that the church was actually designed to stand inside the shelter of the ring, which may have been used in earlier, pagan times as a place of meeting and worship. These are even thought by some to have been Druid sacred circles.   

Living faery and folklore - the old doorway into the
Crowhurst yew - summer 2012


    As with so much tree folklore
, reasons and legend often conflict – yew, the evergreen tree of immortality and hope being a welcomed and propitious decoration – and yew, the guardian of the dead bringing fear and superstition.

     So used are we to seeing Shakespeare’s “double-fatal yew”, gnarled,  dark and silent in graveyards,  modern day superstition tends more towards awe and unquiet. The Yew is one of the sacred trees of the Grecian Goddess Hecate, in her third aspect as the wise crone of winter. As she is considered most learned in the art of poisons, this would seem appropriate.



      One of the most appealing legends to mention the yew, and in this case in a magical sense, is the Celtic Irish love story of Etain and Midir.   

Midir escapes with Etain up through the roof of Eochy's Castle. From 'The Boy's Cuchulain' illustrated by Stephen Reid 1910

This is not the place for the whole tale, but here it is in brief:
.  At the fairy palace of the Tuatha De Danann at Bri Leith, the exraordinarily comely wife of Faery King Midir was subjected to magic, reborn as a mortal and married for love to the human Irish High King Eochy.  Fairy King Midir continued to search for her and eventually carried her back to his enchanted palace.

    Resorting to magic, Eochy found her again with the help of a druid priest  “he made three wands of yew, and upon the wands he wrote an ogham; and by the keys of wisdom that he had, and by the ogham, it was revealed to him that Etain was in the fairy mound of Bri-Leith, and that Midir had borne her thither.”

After many battles the faery kingdom was defeated and, unusually,  Etain returned to her mortal King.

  Quotation from ‘Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race’ Thomas William Rolleston, where of course you may read the whole story.


      Yew Magic, Charms and Beliefs 


Rene Cloke illustrates 'The Wood Pigeon's Story'
'The Wood Pigeon's Story' - vintage postcard by Rene Cloke

      *     A wand lovingly polished from yew wood is a tool of some power and was said to have been used by the Druids. Use it to banish negative influences and purify a space.

      *    At Samhain a little yew bark can be burned in a herbal incense or a branch  thrown into the bonfire when calling on the spirit of an ancestor who has passed to another world.

     *      " Walk ye backward round about me
               Seven times round for all to see;
               Stumble not and then for certain
               One true wish will come to thee. "

   This old Devon rhyme talks of the giant yew tree in the churchyard of St Mary & St Gabriel, Stoke Gabriel –  it seems to me that this would be worth a try with any of our magnificent yews!

    *      As the yew tree is so familiar with death, a small piece of its wood might be useful as a talisman against fear of death and new beginnings caused by death.

Yew Tree Fairy by Cecily Mary Baker
Illustrator M Goetz witha wonderful fairy and bird snuggled in a yew branch
'The Yew Fairy' by Cecily Mary Baker
Illustration by German artist M. Goetz