The magical Pacific Yew Tree and it’s use in Longbow making

Discussion in 'Bushcraft' started by melbo, Aug 28, 2015.

  1. melbo

    melbo Hunter Gatherer Administrator Founding Member

    Yew – The Chief of the Forest
    Yew is an ancient tree. It has been revered everywhere it has existed. It has a mystical quality to it that made it the choice for everything from magic wands to being used as poison to kill unsuspecting leaders. It has qualities that are certainly unsurpassed in other woods from its natural ability to resist decay, it s ability to be used for items that need to flex such as fishing hooks and Taxus Brevifolia (Pacific Yew)
    The beautiful Yew tree seems almost
    magical when you stumble into one,
    this is how the bark looks
    bows, to being a tree that seems to keep living after it is cut from its roots: yew wood has been at times worth its weight in gold. The oldest living thing on the earth in the world is suspected to be yew trees, ones planted by people thousands of years ago in England are well over 3000 years old, although with yew it can be hard to tell.

    In Medieval England, yew now depleted was used as a tax on imported goods from Italy and Spain. From every 10 barrels of Spanish wine allowed in the country 4 staves of Yew suitable for longbows was demanded as an import tax.

    On the west Coast of Canada, many of the first nations (native Indians as Americans call them) referred to this small tree as “the chief of the forest” in their own language. It had a small growing area and only the trees from the highest elevations where yew grew slowly were used. Particularly the small pockets of yew that exist in what is now the West Kootenays of British Columbia, high up in the mountains under the giant old growth western Red Cedar and Fir trees, where it was traded all along the British Columbia ,Washington,Idaho, the Prairies and beyond for valuable art and materials from those areas. Although there was yew wood suitable to building bows on the coast, the density of the trees that come from the colder climates was far superior.

    Yew was also used by First Nations for things like fishing hooks, spears, frames for snow shoes, masks, bowls, axe handles, and even arrow shafts. Talking sticks, and other spiritual magical items were often made from yew, but not to mention medicine that the modern world has now discovered.

    Yew Tree as Medicine
    Lung cancer was common in the Native People, working with fires daily, smoking fish and other actions was thought to cause cancer in the their populations. For thousands of years they used yew wood bark as a cure for many things and in the 1960′s it was investigated by scientists, and soon shown to have significant benefits with people with deadly cancers like ovarian, and breast. Although the First Nation’s use was long overlooked, their methods of smoke inhalation and drinking tea from the typically poison tree, is still overlooked, instead they made the drug taxol from the inner bark of the tree.

    The berries of Yew are important food for Elk.
    The hunger for yew tree bark was now in full drive, local populations in the small strip of the west coast of north america where it grows, and that of the small spot on the inland temperate rainforest of the Kootenai Indians were now looking at a sort of gold rush.

    The problem with this collection is there is only a small amount of bark on the yew tree, and with local governments seeing this otherwise “uncommercial” tree as another industry, the mass slaughter of the mighty Yew Tree went into overdrive. Helicopters looked from the air for signs of yew wood under the old growth canopy, prospectors came to every local bar asking loggers for insider information on where these hidden trees were found. They would cut the tree down and they would take the bark and leave the beautiful wood on the ground, or burn it in slash piles.

    It wasn’t long before all the easily accessible yew trees were gone. With drug companies willing to pay whatever it took to get this bark because cancer victims would pay any price for a chance to use this new miracle drug, understandably.

    After a while the drug companies decided to find out if taxol could be synthesized and with a little effort they found a way. Now the wholesale clear-out of yew wood from the landscape had stopped, at least for its magical medical qualities. Too bad they didn’t take this seriously at the start when they were warned by countless residents about their love for this important tree.

    Clear Cut Logging and the future of forests with Yew
    But clear-cutting practices in the province of British Columbia had long been taking a toll on the old yew trees. It had no commercial value, it was not protected or even respected, many loggers didn’t even realize it wasn’t anything but a scrap tree or some sort of hard wood hemlock. In the old days of logging, yew wood tended to break the manual saws they used for cutting the soft Western Red Cedar and the much softer than Yew Fir. They mostly worked around these trees as it just was too time consuming to cut down, dulling their blades. It also preferred to grow near creaks and brooks and in ravines, the very place that other trees tended to grow on a slant, in well drained soil but thus in a way saving little pockets of Old Growth, the loggers just moved on from areas “infested” with yew.

    [​IMG]Yew Trees used to be very common in it's home range, but it is becoming rare. The trees in the inland, higher elevation are much different than the coastal Yew, both are great for bow making but the trees you find in the drier, and higher elevation inland areas are many times much slower growing and dense.

    Modern logging practices however are not so kind to yew wood. The preferred method of logging in British Columbia is to clear cut ever last tree in a patch, with the idea that the forest will return to its glory someday after some planting. This is true to a point, trees will grow back pretty quickly in these wet regions, but the planting of a small handful of commercial species is commonplace, but species such as Yew wood are completely ignored. Yew will grow back in a clear cut, in fact it is one of the first plants to take advantage in some areas as I have personally witnessed whole mountainsides with scrawny yew bushes growing. The problem is these are not the Yew wood of yesteryear, these are bushes. They can never grow as a straight strong tree form. Why ? They need the shade of a large tree canopy of old growth trees, the weak ones die out young and the strong have a synergy with the old growth forest. They provide food with their berries for animals like elk. A very important food, that in some cases is a majority of their diet when times are rough. It is said a yew berry is like a human eating strawberry for elk, it is a delicious snack for them that provides many nutrients and perhaps some anti-parasitic properties for their stomachs. These elk now defecate near where they are snacking, providing more life to the earth for the Big Trees and Yew wood, and perhaps the dung now has properties that are toxic to invading bugs, keeping the trees healthy and happy, and even encouraging valuable forest items such has the Pine Mushroom (Matsutake) a delicacy in Japan that sells for upwards of $100 a mushroom on their markets. There is no way to grow the Pine Mushroom, it only grows in Old Forests.

    Now, some of this is pure speculation on my part, but it comes from years of research, but some sure things are, Yew wood is very important for elk and other animals as food, it has been used for thousands of years in Tea and Smoke for cures of ailments (Cancers ?) in Native populations, it takes hundreds of years to mature, it is a sacred tree from Europe to North America, was revered as magical, it has properties that are not yet known but surely beneficial for man, and it is most popular form of death, at least in British Columbia as a waste tree burnt in slash piles.

    Bow makers and the Future of Yew wood.
    The Natives in my area would harvest a stave, taking a day to accomplish this, they would notch out and and remove a bow stave from a beautiful tree, and remove just that stave from the standing tree. Many examples of this can be found in BC’s forests. This was done so that this tree could provide another bow to someone else down the road. The trees lived through this easily.

    The "needles" or "leaves" of a Yew tree are much like a western Hemlock but sharp on the ends. It is hard to classify Yew.

    Bow makers scour the forest passing by sometimes 100 trees before choosing one that is straight enough to be used in bow making, most mature yew trees grow twisty and are passed by bow makers.

    This is not to say that bow makers in 4×4 trucks and the never ending building of logging roads into the most remote mountain valleys in BC are not having an impact, they are. Some are going close to home, poaching the yew trees on the sides of popular hiking trains where for the average public will be perhaps their only chance to see a yew tree, and thus protect it.

    It would be a sad day when bow makers can no longer use a piece of yew wood to make a bow, most yew as I said is wasted by clear cutting, and a few select trees can keep a bowyer busy for a year. A responsible bowyer can try to find yew in slash piles, they can try to look for blowdown trees (these aren’t really to common because yew is so tough it very rarely blows down) but most of all they can find yew trees that have been uprooted by landslides, or where a large tree beside it has fallen and thus lifted the roots. It is also a common site to find a yew tree that is mysteriously dead, and also then dry and ready to make a bow, sometimes with wood is no longer sound but I have found most times, even though it seems discoloured it is in fact sound and has a beautiful colour to its sapwood (see my Article on the colours of dead yew)

    In some ways the popularity of making bows from Yew grows, it is a double edge sword, on one hand bowyers typically respect this tree and take only what they need for a bow of their dreams, on the other hand it has created fear that leads some to try to stock pile it and hoard any yew they find thinking that if they don’t take it someone will.

    I am scared the west Coast of BC will learn what Henry V of England learned long ago when the forests of Yew were almost completely gone in England, that you don’t know what you had until it is gone.

    Please respect the yew wood, and keep in mind a tree may have many stems and branches that are good for bows, you can remove a stem and the tree will live on, same with branches, you are now leaving that tree its life to provide another stave to someone at a later date.

    Thanks for reading, and remember Natural Archer is committed to responsible use of Yew and its preservation for future generations can make the bows we do, plus all the other things in the forest that love this plant.

    Information all about the magic Yew Trees. | Natural Archer
    Last edited: Aug 28, 2015
  2. Dont

    Dont Just another old gray Jarhead Monkey Site Supporter+++

    One of my many interest is learning to make my own bow.. I walk often in the woods up here and keep an eye out for anything that may be of use in the future. I have yet to find a yew tree. Personally, I believe that they had been burned out in a wildfire that came through in the sixties . Many areas are just now recovering from that fire, but much of the old growth trees are long gone. I find their stumps (logged in the thirties or so) and with evidence left on them , you can tell if a logger took it or a fire.

    Living in the mountains has requirements. You need to live with the rhythm of nature, it's weather, it's contour's of land, how the water flows on the earth, insects, trees, berries, It all becomes part of you! I even stop for toads crossing the road when I am driving home.
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