This is Taxus brevifolia, the American or Pacific or Western yew, allegedly one of the most toxic plants in North America. But only if you eat it. There’s some concern that it can cause heart attacks in those who work with it, or handle it, or look at it disrespectfully. The biggest danger is to livestock and dogs. Dogs will try to eat anything. Mike helped me out by cutting this one to the ground. Poison or not, I’ve had it with the scrappy-looking thing.
I’ve worked with yew, and did not experience shortness of breath, irritation, staggering, weakness, coldness – well, I frequently experience coldness – or collapse. I experienced annoyance because it’s stringy and sappy. But that yew was brown and yellow, and this is a startling red! It’s too small to allow me to do much with it, but maybe I’ll let it sit around being poisonous in the basement, and make something out of it someday. I’m betting that the red fades to brown.
My parents had two upright yews growing by their house and cut them down to keep the cat from getting herself stuck on the roof. Here’s what I did to one of them. That’s a staff about 6 feet tall. The difference between mature and new wood is clear, and there’s a nice streak of blue running up one side. I guess each one is toxic in its own special way.
This blog made me think of something else I made: a spatula. I’ve been stirring my food with North America’s most toxic wood for 20 years. Hmm.
There is debate in the botanical community; is Taxus brevifolia getting a bad rap? European and Japanese yews are full of a cardiotoxic alkaloidal fraction called ‘taxine’, but here in the U.S., moose and deer eat the native yew, and they don’t stagger and faint. Brevifolia is different than baccata and cuspidata.
The whole east coast is landscaped in this stuff and everyone says, anecdotally, that children die when they eat the berries. But when’s the last time you heard of a child dying of berries? This sounds like the story of how your uncle knows a man who’s wife has a cousin who ate poisoned Hallowe’en candy.
Taxol, the drug made from brevifolia, is another story. It’s alleged to be toxic because the yew element is carried by polyethoxylated castor oil, and everyone knows that castor bean plants are toxic. Everyone except my parent’s landscaper who says they grew near his house when he was a kid and he and his friends all played with the leaves, and didn’t stagger and wheeze.
So for now, I’ll keep the yew. I just won’t eat it. I’ll use the spatula to stir the nightshade salad.