Feb’s Tree of the Month: Pacific Yew

A Pacific Northwest native, Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia) found fame in the 1960’s for its life-giving properties by the National Cancer Institute as researchers determined that an extract from the bark called taxane had beneficial properties as an anti-cancer drug.

The life-saving compound paclitaxel (known commercially as Taxol) blocks cancer cell growth by stopping cell division, resulting in cancer cell death.
It is now used to treat ovarian, breast, small cell lung, and pancreatic cancer, as well as AIDS-related Kaposi sarcoma.

  • Size: 20-40 feet at maturity after 250-300 years. Very slow-growing. When growing in dense, closed canopy forests, it will grow as a tree. In drier, open spaces, it will be more shrubby.
  • Identifying Features: Glossy evergreen needles, 1 inch long. Its berry-like red fruit, called an aril, has a single large seed, but all parts of the Pacific Yew are poisonous!
  • Grow region: From California to SE Alaska up to 8000 feet elevation
  • Growing conditions: Requires partial shade, and prefers moist conditions, but with good drainage.

Pacific Yew trees are an important species for moose, deer and birds. Because it is a smaller tree it is more accessible by the birds and animal browsers. Seeds are dispersed by birds and rodents, but will also just drop to the ground.

Fun Fact: the wood is exceptionally strong and has been used throughout history for tools, canoe paddles, harpoons and weapons, particularly archery bows.

Interestingly, the impact of all bark collection in this slow-growing species led to the near extinction- disappearing this tree from the environmental landscape. Unfortunately, the trees grow so slowly that the tree must be some 100 years old before the bark is harvestable. Taxanes are currently now being harvested from commercial Pacific Yew tree plantations to allow the native Pacific Yew populations to recover.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *