|Berries of Taxus baccata (Common Yew)|
[Image source: https://strawberryhillhousegardens.wordpress.com/2013/12/18/winter-interest-taxus-baccata/]
I hope I need no excuse for quoting Wordsworth's very wonderful poem "Yew Trees" in full:
There is a Yew-tree, pride of Lorton Vale,
Which to this day stands single, in the midst
Of its own darkness, as it stood of yore:
Not loathe to furnish weapons for the Bands
Of Umfraville or Percy ere they marched
To Scotland's heaths; or those that crossed the sea
And drew their sounding bows at Azincour,
Perhaps at earlier Crecy, or Poictiers.
Of vast circumference and gloom profound
This solitary Tree! -a living thing
Produced too slowly ever to decay;
Of form and aspect too magnificent
To be destroyed. But worthier still of note
Are those fraternal Four of Borrowdale,
Joined in one solemn and capacious grove;
Huge trunks! -and each particular trunk a growth
Of intertwisted fibres serpentine
Up-coiling, and inveterately convolved, -
Nor uninformed with Fantasy, and looks
That threaten the profane; -a pillared shade,
Upon whose grassless floor of red-brown hue,
By sheddings from the pining umbrage tinged
Perennially -beneath whose sable roof
Of boughs, as if for festal purpose decked
With unrejoicing berries -ghostly Shapes
May meet at noontide: Fear and trembling Hope,
Silence and Foresight, Death the Skeleton
And Time the Shadow; there to celebrate,
As in a natural temple scattered o'er
With altars undisturbed of mossy stone,
United worship; or in mute repose
To lie, and listen to the mountain flood
Murmuring from Glaramara's inmost caves.
(William Wordsworth, Yew-trees)
"Unrejoicing berries".... yes, that's just what I've always thought about yew berries.
More specifically, I knew that yews were highly toxic and that the cheerfully-coloured berries were to be kept away from.
It was true, I had since learnt that the fleshy part of the berry was not in fact poisonous. But since the pip in the middle of the berry was, that didn't seem to make much practical difference.
So I was rather taken aback when I encountered the following passage in John Meade Falkner's Moonfleet (1898):
Now, my favourite seat in the churchyard was the flat top of a raised stone tomb .... Anyone sitting on the grave-top was snug from the weather, and possessed a fine prospect over the sea. On the other three sides, the yews grew close and thick, embowering the tomb like the high back of a fireside chair; and many times in autumn I have seen the stone slab crimson with the fallen waxy berries, and taken some home to my aunt, who like to taste them with a glass of sloe-gin after her Sunday dinner. (Ch 3)
Falkner, I felt sure, could not be unaware that the yew was poisonous. But as an antiquarian could he have heard of some such country use as he describes? [The health and safety of impressionable youth was obviously not something that concerned him overmuch.]
As usual, the most authoritative account of yew berries and their toxicity is in The Poison Garden:
There's also a lot of discussion on foraging sites.
The sweet, slimy flesh can be eaten if the seed is removed. Some wild-food people are quite enthusiastic about this food source.
Songbirds eat the berries, including the seed. The unbroken seeds pass through the gut and the bird is not harmed.
The seeds are highly toxic, three being enough to cause death. But if a child (or adult) eats yew berries and swallows the seeds without chewing them, there's a reasonable chance they'll get away with it in the same way the songbirds do, though this seems a risky sort of game. It's this likelihood of "getting away with it" that probably accounts for John Gerard's comment: "when I was young and went to school, divers of my school fellows and likewise myself did eat our fills of the berries of this tree and hath not only slept under the shadow thereof, but among the branches also, without hurt at all, and that not one time, but many times".
Grain-eating birds with gravel in their crops (like chickens or pigeons) are advised to stay away from yew berries!
So are drinkers of sloe-gin, pending further information...
[Wordsworth's lines about longbows reflect a common but mistaken belief. The wood for British longbows was always imported from abroad: British yews don't grow straight enough. So the legend that yews were grown in churchyards to furnish weapons for a desperate defence of the tower is wrong.. More likely, the yews were there long before the church was built. They were a sacred Celtic tree.]