yew, name for evergreen trees or shrubs of the genus Taxus, somewhat similar to hemlock but bearing red berrylike fruits instead of true cones. Of somber appearance, with dark green leaves, the yew since antiquity has been associated with death and funeral rites. The English yew ( T. baccata ) was used for the longbows of English archers. The wood of several yews is still employed in making bows and for cabinetwork. In North America the most common species is a low, spreading shrub ( T. canadensis ), called also ground hemlock, which is native to Canada and to the NW United States. The most commonly cultivated yews in the E United States are varieties of the Japanese yew, T. cuspidata. Yews are often trimmed into hedges. Several related evergreen species are also cultivated for ornament, e.g., the plum-yews, of the Asian genus Cephalotaxus. Most parts of the yew plant are poisonous. There is little or no record of medicinal use by Native Americans. However, an important anticancer drug, taxol (effective against ovarian and possibly other cancers), occurs in the Pacific yew ( T. brevifolia ), the English yew, and others. Taxol prevents breakdown of cell microtubules, consequently preventing cell division. Yew is classified in the division Pinophyta, class Pinopsida, order Coniferales, family Taxaceae.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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