“I Hate You”

I could not believe my ears.  Had she really just said that?  I’d only known Margaret (the local farmer) for a few hours.  How could she possibly have formed such a robust opinion of me in such a short time?

It was the summer of 2008.  I had applied for the post of gardener at the Priory and Margaret (acting on behalf of the absent owner) was showing me around the grounds.  I thought we were getting on famously; wandering about and chatting; deciding which plants could be saved, which couldn’t; what was beautiful, what was awful; and simply staring at the immense amount of work.  But it seemed we weren’t getting on as well as I imagined.  As I turned to look at her – lower lip quivering – I realised with a surge of relief that I had misunderstood.  Margaret was glaring at the Priory yew hedge and muttered again, “I hate yew.”

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Sculpted yew, St Mary’s churchyard, Painswick

She told me how recently one of her bullocks had suddenly and inexplicably died.  Upset and bewildered as to the cause, she arranged a post-mortem.  And in the beast’s stomach (or one of them), the vet found a tiny sprig of yew.

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The unfortunate animal had nibbled on an overhanging yew branch and, as any farmer will tell you, it is highly toxic to livestock.  And to humans too.  The berries are the only edible part – though I find them fairly bland.  You must however spit out the black, central seed or at least not chew them.  Whole they’ll pass harmlessly through the gut; chew them and well … three crushed seeds can kill.

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(As a young boy, my partner would sprint past yew trees holding his breath; so convinced was he that even a sniff of them could prove fatal).  Since the death of her bullock, Margaret has been on a mission to remove any yew within reach of her cows.  She loathes yew trees.

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But (cattle killing properties aside) I don’t.  Whenever I’m in the vicinity, I make a detour to St Mary’s Church in Painswick, Gloucestershire.

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The graveyard has more than a hundred yews, almost all of them planted in the early C18th and all meticulously shaped.

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In yew terms these are youngsters; they can live for a couple of millennia and a handful in England and Wales might be more than 4000 years old.  (Yew is notoriously difficult to age as the heart-wood eventually rots away leaving a hollow trunk.  And so, of course, when the tree dies there are no rings to count).

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According to the St Mary‘s website, specialist contractors clip and trim the trees once a year in September.  (I took these photos in October 2013).

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What an immense, exacting and very tiring job that must be.  I shan’t be putting in a bid when the job is next put out to tender.

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But the effect is remarkable: oddly beautiful, slightly creepy, rather poisonous and quite unique.

I love you yew.

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55 thoughts on ““I Hate You”

  1. We also have some yews in our garden – some as hedges, some as solitaries. In autumn thrushs are swarming them to eat the berries – and small wonder seedlings grow everywhere they leave their droppings.
    As to toxidity – it’s never to early to educate children not to put everything in their mouths. Gardens can be dangerous places to them.

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    • Hello Zyriacus, yes yew seedlings do seem to spring up everywhere – I often dig them up and pot them up. I never know when I might use one – even if they are slow to grow initially. Thanks for commenting. Dave

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  2. I guess I’m a little late to the party, but the photos are fantastic and the story is wonderful…. the painful ones always are.
    Now you have me feeling guilty about the yew meatballs which line the side of our house. I’ve left them to go all shaggy since the point of rounding them off during the sweaty heat of summer was lost on me, but now I’m wondering if there’s something brilliant I can do with them. I’ll sit on that thought for a little longer and hope inspiration strikes. Regardless I think I’ll avoid the trimming for yet another year.

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    • Yew meatballs? That sounds marvellous and makes my stomach gurgle. Sounds like your yew-clipping is a job for very early morning or the cool of the evening. Hoping inspiration strikes but not too hard, Dave

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  3. A friend of mine bought a cottage in Hampshire overlooking a village green. The street name was Ewer Common. Questions about where he lived elicited a similarly aghast response. I always rather fancied living there just to be able to say that to some people. PS, I love yew.

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  4. I love those yew in Painswick and your images are fab. They’ve got an eerie feel to them. I’m in two minds about yew. I love the plant but wish I hadn’t planted two yew pyramids by the front door. I can just about manage to remember to clip the box at the right time but having to keep the yew under control …. well it’s become one of those jobs I keep putting off.

    Glad to hear Margaret hadn’t taken against you, otherwise we might never have been treated to your posts from the Priory. On a garden visit with college a few years ago I remarked on how I didn’t like heather, meaning the mass planting seventies style that was in the bed in front of us. It took a few minutes for me to work out why my tutor seemed a bit taken aback. She was called Heather and she hadn’t realised I meant the plant!! Have a great weekend. Lou

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    • That is very funny, Lou. I’m not surprised she was a little upset – poor Heather. I remember wracking my brain as to what I might have said to Margaret for her to hate me so. And that whatever it was, it must have really struck home for her to actually voice her feelings. As to your yew – I’d recommend early evening, a glass of wine, the radio on in the background and humming. Or better still get PL to do it. D

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  5. My sympathies are with Margaret. I don’t admire what is commonly done to yews it seems so out of sympathy with their character, it is as if the gardener is trying to devitalise and castrate them. Amelia

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  6. For Christina – yes the oil in yew has been used in attempting to find a cure for cancer – a company called Limehurst used to cut our huge yew hedges every year (for free) and sell it onto a company in France. Unfortunately this stopped a couple of years ago, co-inciding with recession, however you can still bag up dry yew clippings and arrange for them to be collected through Limehurst and get some money in return. I am always super careful to remove any clippings from the road, just in case – there are lots of young horse riders around my village.
    I love yew for its colour, structure and ability to absorb sound (makes great hedging), but as you can see I try to be mindful!

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  7. I agree with you about them looking creepy – I have never seen yew clipped like that – the yews round here are more free-spirited. I think that is why they kept yew to churchyards so that no animals could nibble on them =- no wonder Mary hates yew – can’t understand why her bullock fancied a taste they don’t look all that inviting to eat to me.

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  8. I’d completely forgotten that exchange. However, my views on yews (sorry about that!) have somewhat softened since I learned that my sister took a cocktail of cancer drugs including yew, named as Taxol in the USA, back in the nineties and managed to keep cancer at bay for 18 years. Sadly it got her in the end. Margaret the farmer

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  9. We have Yew in the churchyard here, clipped as what I would call “pudding basins” I’m so glad Margaret wasn’t talking about you. We have a couple of yew bushes in the garden and I am always finding seeedlings, soon I will have enough to make my own yew hedge!

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  10. Yew is a fabulous plant and glad to hear you love it too even though Margaret ‘hates’ you at the moment. They are such elegant trees that make for an elegant hedging, topiary, or even as a specimen.

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  11. Glad your blog-post wasn’t actually about an acrimonious exchange in the countryside (funnily enough, our blog-post this week is about exactly that!) Very interesting and informative piece – thank yew 🙂

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  12. We also collect our yew clippings for a company which extracts the active compound to make a chemotherapy drug, used in the treatment of some cancers. There’s a good blog written by Chartwellgardensnt.wordpress.com (Oct 2013) if you’d like more details. Helen

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  13. I love yew ! it can kill but it also saves lifes as it cures cancer patients, we are asked each year to cut our yew hedges and bring the cuttings to a certain place in the village as they make medicine from them. Yew is beautiful, evergreen, easy to grow, gives beautiful red berries but yes, I know it is poison too, you have to educate your children at an early age and see to it that your animals can’t reach it, I know it is not always easy but everything on earth as pro’s and con’s !

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    • I read online that some garden contractors clipped some yew and then threw the cuttings over the fence into a neighbouring field. A couple of cows then ate them and died – so yes, very toxic. D

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      • I know it is very toxic, even people get murdered with taxus poison ! How irresponsible of these contractors ! I presume adults know about how toxic taxus is, maybe they did it on purpose ? Were they punished ? I hope so !!!

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        • I misquoted actually. This from http://www.thepoisongarden.co.uk/atoz/taxus_baccata.htm

          A visitor to the Alnwick Garden Poison Garden talked about his elderly neighbour who, being no longer able to manage it himself, had a group of young people in to tidy up his garden. They trimmed his yews and threw the clippings over the fence into the field at the bottom of the garden where three heifers died after eating the cuttings.

          So not actually contractors. D

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          • Well is is very sad anyway ! I am teaching my grandchildren (3 and 5) already about plants and to eat nothing without asking first, as they don’t know what death is I tell them they’ll get a lot of pain, I also tell them never to give food to animals without asking the owner the owner if it is ok.

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  14. There is something slightly sinister about yew I always think. Seedlings appear, as if by magic in my garden quite regularly, yet, to my knowledge, there are none nearby. Some little bird must have a plan!

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  15. I hope it wasn’t yew from the Priory that had killed Margret’s bullocks. I didn’t realise that such a small quantity would be so poisonous. But they do use parts of it in cancer treatment don’t they?

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    • Hi Christina, no the branch of yew was actually fairly high up and overhanging from Margaret’s wood. They do use it as a cancer treatment – something which I should’ve mentioned. D

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  16. I visited Painswick the winter before last but hadnt realised there were such gems in the churchyard so missed out. I do like big topiary so I will try and remember to visit when I am over that way next

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    • I’m guessing you visited the rococco gardens – which we went to after our stop at the church. I knew of the churchyard because years ago we walked the Cotswold Way and I remember collapsing there and recuperating. D

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