Old Yew, New Yew, Renew Yew

Although in the UK the yew tree (Taxus baccata) is often called English Yew it is, in fact, very widespread in its distribution growing throughout Europe as well as parts of Africa, Iran and Asia. It can live to a great age and there are several, mostly growing in churchyards, that are thought to be a thousand or more years old. One such tree grows in the Chiltern village that I lived in before moving to the Cotswolds; it is enormous having a girth of over 5.5 metres.  Despite being a British native that has grown naturally in the wild for thousands of years, yew woods are very rare – I can only think of two (although there must be others): one in the Chilterns behind Watlington Hill and the other in Sussex.  One of the reasons for this is that yew was the favoured timber for making longbows – by 1294 yew stocks were so depleted that imports were being sourced from mainland Europe.

yew forest

The yew forest at Kingley Vale, Sussex, England – one of the finest examples of this rare habitat in Europe [photo credit: Ben Shade]

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The huge girth of the ancient yew in the churchyard at Ibstone , Chiltern Hills, England

Yew is unusual in that the individual plants can be male, female or a combination of the two.   All-male trees release huge clouds of pollen whereas all-female produce none and can be identified by their glowing red berries.  It has even been known for individual trees to gradually change sex with all-male specimens becoming all-female and vice versa.  Although the pollen clouds can be extremely irritating if caught in one, in the average garden situation where mature trees are less likely to be found the pollen release is much more limited.

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The glossy red flesh is the only part of yew that is non-poisonous. It’s still not advisable to eat it!

In its natural condition yew is a spreading, evergreen tree, wider than it is tall.  However, for many centuries it has been clipped and shaped into hedges and topiary for which its regular, and when treated in this way, tight growth makes it ideal.  It responds well to being kept low, say around 45cm, or can be stopped at any height required.  Likewise, it can be clipped into neat cubes, intricate spirals as well as the ubiquitous peacock beloved by stately homes.

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Yew topiary at Hidcote, Cotswold Hills, England

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Intricate yew topiary at Farmleigh Gardens, Dublin, Ireland

One of the characteristics of yew is its ability to send out new growth from old branches and even from its trunk.  This can be readily seen when the branches are parted or the main stems are exposed.  To maintain a clean trunk these growths should be pruned away before they become established.  With hedges and trees it means they can be reduced in size as drastically as you might wish although it is important to bear in mind that a heavily pruned tree may never be restored to a thing of beauty.

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Yews ability to regenerate from old wood means that it can be pruned as hard as you dare

If reshaping trees is a skill difficult to master, restoring overgrown or gappy yew hedging only takes courage although for best results it may take a few years to achieve perfection.  Begin this process by removing all growth back to the trunk on one side only.  The hedge will now look ugly but new growth will soon sprout and the following year or in year three the other side of the hedge can be given the same treatment.  Apart from the benefit this staggered pruning has to the health of the yew another advantage is that the screening from the unpruned side means there is no loss of privacy.  The height of the hedge can also be reduced at the same time as side two cutting 6-12 inches below its required finished height to allow for regrowth.  By year five, if not sooner, the hedge will be a manageable, healthy screen once more and will continue to be so for very many years.

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The first stage in regenerating an old yew hedge

As with all plants, especially those that are long-lived, careful planting is essential to give them a good start.  Yew copes with most soil types including chalk but hates waterlogged or compacted soils.  Whatever the soil, enrich with good quality compost or well-rotted manure; if any parts are excessively damp create a low bank at least six inches high to ensure the roots establish in the marginally better drained soil.  Pot-grown yews can be planted at any time of the year providing the ground isn’t frozen; the best time is mid-autumn and spring when the soil is warmer. The optimum size for quick establishment is 2-3 feet and this size also makes planting a hedge quite economic too.  With a bigger budget larger plants may be purchased.  These in the photo below are over six feet high and create an instant hedge when planted closely together.  Because of their size they are usually ‘root-balled’ and only available during the cooler months.  The hessian and wire mesh root ball should be left intact as they quickly decay once planted although the wire collar may be released if it fits too snugly against the stem.  In windy situations they may require staking; they will certainly need careful watering for the first two years of their life.

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Rootballed yew waiting to be planted – they will make a fine, if somewhat costly, instant hedge

However you chose to use your English Yew, whether as hedging or as topiary, there is one common rule to clipping and that is accuracy for nothing looks worse than a formal hedge or piece of topiary that does not have clean, sharp lines.  The ideal time for clipping is August although spring is the time for restoration pruning.  One word of caution – all parts of yew are highly toxic if ingested.  It is essential that clippings are disposed of carefully for it can be fatal if livestock such as horses have access to them.  Yew clippings from regularly clipped hedges can be sold for use by pharmaceutical companies to make cancer treatment drugs.  In the past, when I was the Head Gardener of a large country estate with extensive yew hedging, we secured a not-inconsiderable amount of money over time which the estate donated to cancer research charities.  I believe that, for 2020, collection has been suspended but hopefully it will be resumed in future years.

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A beautifully clipped yew hedge creates the perfect backdrop to any garden – Kiftsgate Court, Cotswold Hills, England

 

 

 

 

On Brooms, Kings & Witches

The pea-like seedpods of the Broom shrub readily identify it as part of the Legume (pea & bean) family of plants. Easily grown in British gardens in colours ranging from cream through yellow to burnt oranges and dark reds, it is now a shrub that is considered rather unfashionable. Despite that, it deserves to be reinstated into the flower border for they take up relatively little space and give a good show in late spring. Generally, a tall, narrow plant up to 3m in height, there are a couple of prostrate varieties (of which the most readily available is Cytisus ‘Lydia’) that are perfect for placing on the edge of a raised bed. When not in flower the whippy, green branches form a quiet backdrop to other plants.

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The Wild Broom, Cytisus scoparius

In the wild, broom can sometimes be seen growing prolifically on motorway embankments and is one of the first shrubs to colonise newly-built ones. The golden-yellow flowers are the same colour as gorse, the two often being mistaken for one another. However, unlike gorse with its prickly stems, broom is spineless and soft to touch. In the photograph below and dating from the early 1970s, broom has quickly colonised the top of a newly dug quarry despite not having been seen growing in the area before. The flowers smell strongly of vanilla; when the seed pods have turned black and are fully ripe, they split open with an audible pop.

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Broom colonising a newly disused quarry

There are two main species of Broom.  If searching for them in garden centres they are often found under their botanical names of Cytisus or Genista.  Centuries ago the Latin name for the shrub was Planta genista and tradition states that this gave rise to the name of the Plantagenet dynasty through Geoffrey V of Anjou’s (born 1113) habit of wearing a sprig of broom flowers in his hat. It was Geoffrey’s son, Henry who in 1154 became Henry II, the first of the Plantagenet kings to rule England.

Henry II Plantagenet

King Henry II of England (Source: Wikipedia)

A source of some confusion is the witches’ broom, a gall, sometimes found growing on birch trees. They have nothing to do with either the shrub broom or with witches and are so called presumably because of their superficial resemblance to the besom brooms that witches are said to fly on. They are actually caused by a variety of different organisms – insect, virus, fungus, bacteria – in the case of birch, usually the cause is fungal. They do not seem to harm the tree.

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Witches’ Brooms

In folk medicine, the flowers of broom have been used as an ointment to treat gout. According to my old herbal it also prevents rabies and is a cure for dropsy, jaundice, worms, kidney and urine problems. It claims it can also kill headlice. In the southern English county of Sussex, it was believed that just by sweeping the floor with flowering broom branches was enough to kill the head of the house not just the lice. Perhaps, therefore, it maybe best just to admire the floral display from the safety of the motor car when driving!

Seeking Great-Aunt Ba-ba

Some people make a lasting impression on you and in the case of Great-aunt Ba-ba it was just as well for I only met her once as a child when she was very elderly.  Someone of twenty seems ancient to a youngster, as for being ninety, I just couldn’t get over anyone being that old or that much fun.

Gt Aunt Baba (Frances White) 90th bithday about 1965

photo take by me about 1965, which means she would have been born around 1875

Great-aunt Ba-ba was a ‘spinster of the parish’, a description that conjures up a sad and somewhat diminished individual whereas in reality, if she was anything to go by, they were far from that.  Lively and interesting, I adored her instantly but was too young to ask her any questions about her life.  I doubt if I would have been told much anyway for that generation were far too busy living in the present: perhaps the effect of surviving two world wars.

Frances White - auntie baba - and Clara Joyce Shortland

On the left, about 1925

One story I heard many times from my father was of how when he and his brother were sent to stay with her in the school holidays they were allowed to run wild, something that wouldn’t have been tolerated by their strict parents.  This would have been about 1920 and to reach Rudgwick in Sussex from the Thames Valley took the whole day.  Once there they would spend all day running free through the woods and cowslip-ing in the meadows.  On trips to the south coast my father would always make time for a detour to show me his playground and Aunt Ba-ba’s wonderful house. postcard of Greenhurst, nr Rudgwick

about 1918-20

So how did she get her pet name?  I have no idea – I understand that her real name was Frances White – and there is no one now left alive that can answer the question. Perhaps her name was Barbara, or is that too simple an explanation? I had another great aunt that was called ‘Toddles’ so perhaps silly names were just a family thing!

Frances White - auntie baba

1940’s?

I’d always assumed that Frances White was just a family friend for, in days past, it was customary for children to call them aunt or uncle out of respect.  Recently I have discovered another old family photograph – that of Charles William Langston-White and this could be a missing link.  His mother Norah Langston (my first cousin twice removed, whatever that means) married James William White in 1909 – he was born in Sussex.

charles william langston-white, aged 3yrs 3mths

“aged 3yrs 3mths” so taken June 1916

Could Great-aunt Ba-ba have been related to this White family?  I would have thought it probable but, so far, my researches have drawn a blank and I have found no trace of her having even existed in the public record books.  Fortunately I have these few photos of her and my memory to prove she existed.

If there are any enthusiastic genealogists or amateur sleuths reading this I will be grateful if you can find out more.