Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The yew-tree of Lorton Vale

An ancient tree immortalized by William Wordsworth

Take a few minutes from your busy day and enjoy this description of a wonderful tree. This is excerpted from William Wordsworth's poem, "Yew-Trees." As you read it, it's helpful to remember that yew wood was used to make bows and arrows.

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...

-- from "Yew-Trees" by William Wordsworth (1770-1850).

The yew tree of Lorton Vale still stands, though part of it broke away in a storm. Previously, it was 27 feet in circumference; now it is is only 13 feet. It is over 1000 years old.

You can read some of Wordsworth's commentary about yew trees at

The Lorton Vale yew is believed to be the tree that Quaker preacher George Fox (1624-1691) mentions in his autobiography. The event he describes took place in 1653, and the soldiers he mentions were from Oliver Cromwell's army.

We came the next day to the steeple-house where James Lancaster had appointed the meeting. There were at this meeting twelve soldiers and their wives, from Carlisle; and the country people came in, as if it were to a fair. I lay at a house somewhat short of the place, so that many Friends got thither before me. When I came I found James Lancaster speaking under a yew tree which was so full of people that I feared they would break it down.

I looked about for a place to stand upon, to speak unto the people, for they lay all up and down, like people at a leaguer. After I was discovered, a professor asked if I would not go into the church? I, seeing no place abroad convenient to speak to the people from, told him, Yes; whereupon the people rushed in, so that when I came the house and pulpit were so full I had much ado to get in. Those that could not get in stood abroad about the walls.

When the people were settled I stood up on a seat, and the Lord opened my mouth to declare His everlasting Truth and His everlasting day.George Fox (1624-1691)

About a century later, John Wesley, the leader of a religious movement called Methodism, preached under the Lorton Vale yew as well.

The leaves of Taxus baccata are highly poisonous and they remain poisonous even if they are brown and lying on the ground. For that reason, livestock must not be allowed to graze around a yew-tree. The seeds are also highly poisonous. However, the pulp of the berry-like cone that contains the seed is sweet and is enjoyed by birds.

Related webpages:
  • The Vale of Lorton, Cumbria - Includes a photo of the Lorton Vale yew which survives to this day.
  • Yew - An interesting page by Anna Fraser with descriptions of many traditions associated with the yew as well as a summary of facts.

Credit: Yew leaves & cone image is from Wikimedia Commons.

1 comments -- please add yours:

bc said...

I found Tree Notes while looking up shaggy-barked trees, specifically those native to this part of the country (I'm next door in WV). What I found (in addition to the helpful Oct 15, 2007 post "Twelve native trees with shaggy bark") was more far-ranging and fascinating than my little task of identification, and I was drawn into the site to explore. The content is well documented with a compelling approach. Have thoroughly enjoyed the discovery! Wish I'd stumbled in sooner.

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Enrich your life with the study of trees.

"The power to recognize trees at a glance without examining their leaves or flowers or fruit as they are seen, for example, from the car-window during a railroad journey, can only be acquired by studying them as they grow under all possible conditions over wide areas of territory. Such an attainment may not have much practical value, but once acquired it gives to the possessor a good deal of pleasure which is denied to less fortunate travelers."

Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927)

Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

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