Monthly Archives: May 2015

An ancient tree of poison and tales of bloody murder

2068 years ago Julius Caesar had some difficulty from some tribes in Gaul. It wasn’t Asterix and Cacofonix, but very close. There were two kings, Ambiorix and Catuvolcus, of a Belgian tribe called the Eburones who rebelled against their Roman overlords. They fought very bravely and took out a sizeable chunk of the Roman legion based in the area, leading to Caesar camping there for months to oversee the campaign against them. He praised them for their bravery, but made them pay in the most vicious manner; Caesar effectively wiped out the entire tribe. Ambiorix has gone down in history as a Belgian legend and – King Arthur style – seemed to disappear. Catuvolcus was a lot older and, despairing at the bloodshed, took his own life by drinking the poison of a Yew Tree.

If you don’t like my version of the story, why not read it from the first-hand account of Julius Caesar himself:

Catuvolcus, rex dimidiae partis Eburonum, qui una cum Ambiorige consilium inierat, aetate iam confectus cum laborem belli aut fugae ferre non posset, omnibus precibus detestatus Ambiorigem, qui eius consilii auctor fuisset, taxo, cuius magna in Gallia Germaniaque copia est, se exanimavit. – Julius Caesar, Gallic War vol VI

Around five hundred years after this genocidal event had taken place, a Yew sapling was growing on a burial ground near, what is now, the Welsh border with England. Some eight hundred years on, that sapling was still alive and now a mighty specimen of a normally smallish tree. A Church was built on the holy land right next to this ancient tree. Turn the clock on more than seven hundred years again and you reach the present day. The church is still standing and so, remarkably, is that ancient tree.

European Yew (Taxus baccata)

European Yew (Taxus baccata)

For a tree species that is described as small-medium, this 1500 year-old specimen has a trunk that measures almost 9.5 metres in circumference and it blocks out the church built in its shadow.

As Catuvolcus knew well, Yew is deadly poisonous. Interestingly, the only parts of Yew that are not filled with poison are the juicy bright red berries. But the harmless flesh contains a hard seed that could kill a man if swallowed. The needle leaves are even more deadly and will likely stop your heart within hours of ingestion of even a small amount. For hay fever sufferers – like me – the Yew tree is rated 10 out of 10 for the potency of the allergenic pollen. Watching the wind blow a pollen-heavy male Yew is a natural wonder, but beware that you are not caught down-wind from that cloud of dust, as respiration problems, light-headedness and other nasty symptoms will surely follow.

The tree in the photograph has become hollow over time. Its enormous girth has allowed the local people of Much Marcle to put a bench in it.

Much Marcle Yew

Over hundreds of years, just think of the lovers who will have sat there and the children who will have played among the deadly branches. One boy who may well have sat on that bench, as he grew up in the village, was Fred West. As anyone English will know, the farm boy was terribly head-injured in his teens and grew up to become one of the most notorious, sadistic, serial killers in our country’s history. It is sad to think that this beautiful village is now far better known as the place of birth of a man who committed the most terrible of crimes than for an incredible tree. I ran my hands over the dense and complicated swirls of wood reflecting on the history that will have occurred around this ancient, deadly, but peaceful giant…

Inside the Yew at Much Marcle

Inside the Yew at Much Marcle

Post Scriptum: It is hard to be believe, but across the border in Wales is an even more ancient Yew. In fact, at around 5000 years old, it is believed to be one of the most ancient trees in the world. When the Much Marcle tree was sprouting from a seed, the Llangernyw Yew is believed to have already been a staggering 3500 years old – 3 millennia had passed it by before poor old Catuvolcus topped himself with a draught of poison from the dried needles of one of its European cousins.

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