Ancient Uses of Yew Trees & Cypress

Adorning the fabric of our green landscape through each languid, lifeless winter cycle, evergreen trees are Earth’s natural and ancient symbols for unimaginable perseverance during the most brutal aspects of being.

For us forest wanderers of the modern age, evergreens emerge as staples of woodland life. They are nature’s monumental sanctuaries for wildlife during the winter.

Each tree thickly matted with unusually dark leaves, providing inimitable warmth for birds, squirrels and other local fauna, whilst bearing a myriad of seeds and fruits to be harvested and stored throughout the cruelest months of nature’s decline.

To the ancient peoples of Europe, the undying evergreens symbolised something even more majestic than their physical fortress of wintry solace.

Ancient Yew Tree at Corhampton Saxon Church
Ancient Yew Tree at Corhampton, Hampshire. It is in the grounds of the Saxon Church

Symbols of Life, Death and Rebirth

The emerald-gowned evergreens that pierced the corpse-strewn landscape of leafless, deciduous trees offered an otherworldly contrast of colour and hope against the pallidly grey skies and fields littered with the skeletons of other species; an enchanting earthly notion of health, life and persistence, still felt today.

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Their undying, gargantuan structures, detailed in abyssal green and haunting the barren winter like ghosts of a season past, lent a spiritual significance to evergreens unfound in their leaf-shedding counterparts.

Yew trees and cypresses in particular were considered nature’s symbols of life, death and rebirth, and were believed to host a spread of correspondences applicable to physical healing remedies as well as the metaphysical purification of the soul and home.

Pre-Christian Europeans focused in earth-based religious practices, incorporated both the yew and cypress within their lifestyles in a number of ways.

Ancient Yew Tree
This ancient yew tree is in the churchyard of Hambledon village, Hampshire, England. As a side note, Hambledon is the place of birth and death of William Lashly (1867–1940), a member of Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic expeditions.

From the harvesting of their components for use in primordial witchcraft and herb-based medicines, to their introduction into the home, bestowing their protection, health and other symbolisms upon all those who reside within their sphere.

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Whilst threading these early sentiments throughout their mythology and religious practice, both the yew tree and the cypress were sometimes revered like living gods upon the Earth; immortal and imperial in their cathedral-like structures and cryptic aura of mysticism.

Yew Trees

One of the most hardy yet mysterious trees native to the British Isle, Taxus baccata, known commonly as the yew tree, has been dislodged from much of its original heritage, uses and sacredness.

This species finds its average place today in use as a hedging shrub in private gardens, prized for its complex of dense, undying foliage so rich in hue that it proves almost impenetrable to human eyesight.

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Rather than declining beneath the slaughtering cold, yew trees and shrubs are bestowed instead with crimson berries during the  autumn and winter; a haven for all manner of birds and woodland wildlife whilst the cropless season of frost stretches on.

Warfare and Poison

To the people of antiquity, yews were revered for their natural perfection in balancing unthinkable strength with flexibility; a quality which ignited the species’ popularity in the realms of ancient archery, making it an eminent choice in the crafting of bows and arrows for both hunting and archaic war efforts alike.

Ancient Yew Tree
The seeds themselves are poisonous and bitter, but are opened and eaten by some bird species.

Once blanketing the country in its evergreen forest, the millennia past have seen vast swathes of Britain’s yew strongholds cut down and desecrated beyond repair for its overuse in ancient warfare, among other reasons, limiting its spread to mostly singular, wild trees entombed in an alien forest dominated by other species, only otherwise appearing among churchyards and as domestic privacy hedging.

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Yews are profusely poisonous, reaching their most heightened state of toxicity during the coldest and cruelest winter months, when compared to the warmer days of summer. Not only was the yew’s poison used to fatally adorn the tips of arrowheads, their stems crafted from the same toxic wood, but was also used as an ancient method of inducing miscarriage and abortion.

Ancient Yew Tree
Eating a relatively small quantity of leaves can be fatal for livestock and humans. The toxicity of yew leaves is due to the presence of alkaloids known as taxines, of which taxine B is suspected as being one of the most poisonous.

This overwhelmingly toxic plant could be consumed in minor amounts, averting the death of the mother whilst ceasing the foetus’ life.

But needless to say, with yew counted among the most lethal of all European trees, this fine-tuned mastery of balancing life and death wasn’t easily accomplished and often ended in tragedy, with the yew gaining further notoriety for its suicidal appeal.

Seasonal Decoration

Even more compelling than the yew tree’s role of inducing physical death are the various methods in which the people of antiquity let the species inspire their lifestyles in a positive light, allowing its connection to the afterlife and strength to crown both their spiritual beliefs and seasonal practices.

Ancient Yew Tree
Ancient yew tree in a graveyard on the Purbecks.

As evergreens, yews retain every fragment of growth and foliage throughout winter’s deathliest moments, their insidiously dark green needles capturing the bleak morbidity thrust upon lands, whilst animating the horizon with a hopeful, eternal splash of colour.

This concept of immortal winter growth and unexpected strength lends itself to one of yew’s last remaining uses today: interior decor, most recognisable today in the form of Christmas trees.

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The concept of the Christmas tree may only date back a couple of centuries, but the theme of inviting nature into your personal space for its cleansing and healing properties almost transcends time itself.

From wildflowers hand-picked to refresh your own sense of inner happiness to plants used to heal physical ailments and emotional strife, harnessing the beauty and bounty of nature within one’s own personal space is hardly an uncommon practice, even in today’s world of modern science.

Protection and Purification

Yews, alongside other common evergreens such as cypresses, pines and firs, were regarded as metaphysical symbols for purification; an aspect tied closely to the winter season where life succumbs to hibernation before reanimating with the coming of spring.

Ancient Yew Tree
Had to include this one! Door of a Norman chapel set in a yew tree, Chapelle Saint-Anne, Church of Notre-Dame, La Haye-de-Routot, France.

Yew trees in particular, through their mythical ability to spawn new shoots from fallen branches, were ideal representations of eternity and immortality, the mere presence of the species believed to drive away negative spirits and disastrous energy, imparting a spiritual sense of peace and protection to its onlookers in place of the winter blues.

Through the age-old tradition of ornamenting spaces with boughs of plush winter foliage, and the later evolution of welcoming a complete evergreen indoors, yews and alternative Christmas tree species have long been used as symbols of cleansing, protection and endurance, averting all traces of negativity and ill-will, whilst being a shrine of solace through the most savage stages of winter.

The Cypress Tree

Cypresses and Yew trees bear many similarities between their ancient, metaphysical uses, despite being two completely separate species. Though not a native tree to Britain (first introduced to Britain in 1854) it is an interesting tree.

cypress tree
Has a very strong scent

Both evergreen trees, cypress carries an identical symbolism relating to eternity and immortality, perseverance through winter-borne trauma and the hope for new life to blossom upon spring’s approaching horizon.

However, the cypress tree takes the yew’s ghostly symbolisms to an even deeper extent of seasonal despair, recovery and rebirth.

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Healing Grief

Cypress trees are classically linked with the ageless acts of mourning, grief and surmounting melancholy, the species rooting itself predominantly in Ancient Greek mythology, where it attained its name through the myth of Cyparissus; a boy who metamorphosed into the tree in the wake of his guilt and grief.

The use of cypress can be traced back even further into antiquity, its wood handcrafted into coffins by the Ancient Egyptians who similarly recognised cypresses and other evergreen trees as symbols of life, death and immortality.

The cypress tree also possesses the physical advantage of being resistant to rot and water; an aspect picked up on across seas by the Native Americans who used its wood to craft canoes.

The myth of Cyparissus gives way to cypress’s long-documented range of spiritual purposes, each surrounding the encouragement of peaceful reflection upon one’s past choices and present state of being.

cypress tree
These trees of life and death found abundant use in warding off harmful spirits.

This is a tree which incites its adorers to embrace the down-time of winter, to recollect before progressing rather than shut down entirely, as could be symbolised in the case of deciduous, leaf-shedding tree species such as oak and birch.

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It’s boughs used like the yew to purify the home in the dead of winter, cypress has long embellished our mourning decoration, adorning coffins, grave-sites and homes whilst reflecting forlorn weeping through its trailing, feathered leaves.

Graveyard Landmarks

Like the recurring image of yew trees surrounding churches and graveyards, cypress trees too find their most common place today within the older, preserved sanctuaries of churchyards.

Also a slow-growing tree, it might be hard to find any new examples of cypresses compared to the abundance of antiquated trees congregating in the burial grounds, suggesting, like the yew, some cypresses may stretch back further than the churches themselves, grounding their significance and function firmly within antiquity.

In the influence of evergreens’ connotations to rebirth, churches and cemeteries sprung wherever yews and cypresses dominated the landscape, and these species were in turn planted by the churches, wherever they might not have been present.

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These trees of life and death found abundant use in warding off harmful spirits, preventing the dead from rising and bestowing sanctuary upon the grounds for the living.

Alongside a small collection of other cemetery staples such as cedars and pine trees, yews and cypresses can still be found lining the pathways of elder churchyards, dotted amongst the tombstones and bestowing year-round inspiration of life to places riddled by mournful energy.


Whilst yew is notoriously toxic and harmful to all forms of life if ingested (aside from the berry’s flesh), cypress harbours many detoxifying and antioxidant qualities, recognised and renowned in aromatherapy for their aid in relaxing the participant, easing respiratory issues, elevating their mental state as well as soothing their persistent sense of sadness.

Cypress’ fragrant oil is mixed into blends promoting peace, rejuvenation and alleviating depression, and is used upon the body or to perfume the air with its mythical correspondences.

The Lasting Impact of Ancient Uses

While modern man neglects to cut the ancient forest for their wood as ancient days, mostly due to their sparsity after antiquity’s own onslaught, the historical uses of evergreens are still apparent to this day.

The classical symbolisms of yews and cypresses imparted its grand influence through the following centuries, inspiring their use not only in physical healing matters, but in the lost, spiritual significance of inviting the species into our homes to attain their ethereal cleansing energies.