Yew shrub

Yews. We had them at all three of my parents’ houses when I was growing up, and there they were again when we were buying our own house — two big ones along the foundation in the back, and some smaller ones at the foundation in front. I had always referred to them as generic “evergreens,” but our home inspector called them “yews,” which is also what my grandma used to call us kids.

Yew shrubs (of the genus Taxus) are included among all the Wisconsin landscaping staples cataloged in The Garden Book for Wisconsin, by Melinda Myers. I glanced at that handy book’s entry to make sure it was okay to prune them. Amy did the honors, shaping them with shears into pleasing spheres and cones during a break from pruning every other overgrown shrub in our yard this past Saturday.

The trimming left clippings, which I then spread over our beginning bird/butterfly garden as a mulch. I figured the price was right, and I liked the texture and the brownish-orange color they would turn.

Looking at our finished mulch, our neighbor recalled something about that evergreen being too acidic. I assured him it was fine — but later, I decided to double-check. The Garden Book for Wisconsin only mentions that “The red portion [of the small yew berry] is not toxic but the seeds, bark, and foliage are.”

Toxic, huh? Maybe it could cause a tummy ache, I assumed, or some sort of skin irritation. I Googled it to learn more.

Are yews poisonous?

Whoa, Nelly!

As one profile states, “The plant is exceptionally toxic, with one mouthful able to kill a horse or cow within 5 minutes.” Another article matter-of-factly notes that the yew’s “Taxine alkaloids kill by slowing then stopping the heart. There is little struggling.”

It’s sudden death, plain and simple. The animal (or human), is first apprehensive, and then it’s dead. So … at least there’s no nausea and no rash.

All of this was complete news to me. As a kid, I remember some speculation among friends that the red berries were poisonous. It turns out they’re the only part that’s not toxic, but even the small seed inside the red berry is said to be reason enough to pump a child’s stomach.

(Update: At least one study has found that yews are not so poisonous in the vast majority of cases.)

Needless to say, our innovative mulch came off yesterday, with us wearing gloves and being careful not to inhale near it. Apparently yew toxins are undetectable after 65 days of composting, which is not very fast, so it’s best to compost yew clippings separately. That’s what we’re doing.

Man — there’s more danger in my own backyard than I ever imagined!

Update: Taxol chemotherapy

We have since learned that paclitaxel (brand name: Taxol), a chemotherapy drug used to fight many forms of cancer, is derived from bark of the Pacific yew and related Taxus species. It is the best-selling anticancer drug ever.

In fact, Amy has had Taxol treatments as part of her therapy for breast cancer.

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