An Adventure with the Edible Yew!


The dogs playing on the magic side. Photo by Chrissy Miles

It was pouring rain when my apprentices and I explored the unfamiliar forest around the Collowash River. We were soaked, but we didn’t mind so much because of how beautiful our surroundings were.

“It’s like a joke!” Kelly said, speaking aloud our thoughts. We had just set up camp at a different spot that was nowhere near as stunning as this one. For one thing, that site was wide open to the pouring rain whereas here we were covered by the canopy. For another, everything over here looked brighter somehow. The colors were deeper and bolder. The river was a prettier shade of pale green and the plants were healthier. These sites were separated by a road, and were not more than 50 feet from each other, yet it was as if, simply by walking through a passageway on the other side of the road, we had been transported to a different dimension where everything was better.

Here the floor was soft and covered with the fallen needles of conifers. Our dogs leapt over giant moss-covered rocks and swam in the river and played. We wandered around this magical place and found wonder upon wonder: a frog hiding in a tree stump, and then a little green inch worm that danced. The inch worm was fascinating to us. It stood on one end and contorted itself.

“Will it dance to a beat?” I wondered. The others laughed.

I took a stick and rhythmically tapped the log on which the little inch worm was standing. It moved back and forth, but we decided that none of us knew enough — or anything, actually — about the habits of an inch worm to say for sure.

Yew bark, photo by Matthew White

Yew bark, photo by Matthew White

We closed our eyes and communed with the energy of this beautiful place, and then we wandered again, stepping over fallen logs and rocks and slippery ground safely, helping each other navigate. Here we came upon an evergreen tree with smooth, scale-like, red-to-scarlet bark and little berries shaped like a hollow bell with a seed inside: Pacific Yew, Taxus brevifolia!

Yew berries are edible, though the seed inside is toxic, as are the leaves and other parts of this tree. Because we knew of the poisonous parts, we all felt a little apprehensive about tasting the fleshy red covering, called the aril. I and Matthew, who is ever adventurous, went first. “It’s good!” we exclaimed. The yew fruit was sweet and tasty, certainly among the most flavorful and worthwhile of wild foods I have tried.

Yew fruit! The red fleshy covering is called the aril and is edible. The seed inside, visible here, is poisonous to humans. Birds can eat the whole thing. Photo by Matthew White

Yew fruit! The red fleshy covering is called the aril and is edible. The seed inside, visible here, is poisonous to humans. Birds can eat the whole thing. Photo by Matthew White

Pacific Yew mainly lives in the understory of low to mid-elevation old-growth forests from southern Alaska through southern Washington, and in the coastal range of southern Oregon and into the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. It is also found in western Montana and northern Idaho, according to the US Forest Service, and occasionally but less commonly in the Cascade Range of Oregon. It grows in rainy places but is also found in drier habitats near streams.

The wood of Pacific Yew has been a traditional source of material for making paddles, spears, harpoon shafts, sewing needles, and other important resources for indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest. The bark of this tree has powerful medicinal compounds that are being researched by scientists and appear very promising for the treatment of many kinds of cancer, including ovarian, breast, and kidney. People from the Haida tribe reportedly believed that eating too much yew arils could make a person sterile, and interestingly, this is also a belief some Europeans have held in connection with European yew species, according to Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, a wonderful field guide edited by academic ethnobotanists. (That book is my must-have in the field!)

Pacific Yew needles / Photo by Walter Siegmund via WikiMedia

Pacific Yew needles / Photo by Walter Siegmund via WikiMedia

Neat trivia about the Pacific Yew: Like humans, individual yew trees may have just male reproductive parts, just female reproductive parts, both male and female parts, and in some cases, they change their sexual identity over time!

Does the idea of adventurously wandering around looking at plants with a fun, like-minded group of people sound appealing to you? If so, consider applying for the 2016 apprenticeship program, which begins in early March and continues through mid-October. We begin with a weekend retreat and then meet on Saturdays during these eight months. We focus on plant identification and uses, spiritual connection with herbs, DIY herbal medicine and edible plants, and together we become a beloved community of friends. The cost is significantly lower if you register by the end of December. I am currently accepting applicants. Have a look at the details here.

Thank you for reading. Happy foraging!


4 thoughts on “An Adventure with the Edible Yew!

  1. Yew has already been used in cancer treatment for a good while. My understanding (although ten years old) is that the compound used is very complicated and cannot yet be synthesised (unlike, for example, the salycilic acid in aspirin which no longer comes from from willow). It was first discovered in your T. brevifolia, which is however too rare for large scale harvest. In Britain, though, there are tens of thousands of miles of yew hedges (T. baccata), the management of which generates huge harvests of clippings that then go to drug companies. The National Trust, which manages a lot of properties with it is right on board:

  2. I love the fruit of the Japanese yew, common here on The East Coast. Of course, I spit out the seeds, which can stop your heart, but they’re not harmful to everyone: My ex-girlfriend can eat them without any ill effects — she ran off with another guy on Valentine’s Day 21 years ago, and has no heart!

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