The European yew—Taxus baccata—is an evergreen coniferous tree commonly found planted in churchyards in France, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Yews are known for their extraordinary life spans of an average of four hundred to six hundred years. The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, Scotland is believed to be between two and three thousand years old, making it the oldest tree in Britain and perhaps the oldest in Europe.
Commonly growing in graveyards, yew trees are known as "the tree of the dead." Over centuries, people have assigned superstitious auras to yew trees, believing the trees capable of warding off devils. Some monks have theorized that the roots are poisonous because they draw nourishment from the corpses buried in the yew tree's shadows. Most of Britain's yew trees are believed to have been planted by Norman church builders, while other trees predate Christianity and were used by pagans at sacred sites before pagan religions were supplanted. The trees' mystical aura is thought to be informed, at least in part, by the yew's ability to regenerate new shoots from seemingly dead heartwood. The trees branches, when not intervened with by pruning sheers, will touch the ground and make new roots, meaning the tree will take centuries to spread over its surrounding landscape. Although most parts of the yew tree are poisonous, ancient apothecaries and modern cancer researchers have made remedies and medicines from the yew.
In recent years, campaigners in Britain have sought to achieve legal protections for the country's ancient yew trees, which do not have the same protections as historical buildings and sites of similar age and cultural significance.