You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Yew’ tag.

The Fortingall Yew

The Fortingall Yew

It’s 2015 and anything is possible these days, but Ferrebeekeeper was still surprised to see a stolid old friend showcased in the international media for changing gender!  A while ago (for us humans) I blogged about The Fortingall yew, which may be more than 5000 years old (and may also be Great Britain’s oldest living thing).  The Fortingall yew is a male and has been so for several millennia.  However, this year the ancient tree started to produce berries from a limb near its crown.  Yews tend to be male or female, though it is not entirely unheard of for male conifers to have a female branch.  Of course the Fortingall Yew predates Christianity (and possibly the pyramids)…and it has returned from the dead, so a bit of gender bending may not be so noteworthy considering its astonishing nature.  Hopefully the berries will be fertile, I would like the tree to have some known offspring (although probably most of the yews in Great Britain are already descendants if it has been around for so long).

The Fortingall Yew then and now: partying with Victorian dandies in 1822 on the left, and switching gender at present time on the right

The Fortingall Yew then and now: partying with Victorian dandies in 1822 on the left, and switching gender at present time on the right

Hecate


When I was young I received a copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, which I loved.  I memorized the characters and stories from the book and suddenly the world of art and poetry opened up to me.  The book remains a delightful mythology primer for any child. However, later when I read actual Greco-Roman literature, I realized that D’Aulaire’s had left out a goddess of great importance to the Greco-Roman world (among other things…).  The omission seems fitting however, for the missing goddess was Hecate, the goddess of magic, poison, night, thresholds, boundaries, and crossroads.  The Oxford Classic Dictionary asserts that Hecate “is more at home on the fringes than in the center of Greek polytheism. Intrinsically ambivalent and polymorphous, she straddles conventional boundaries and eludes definition.”  This seems correct.  Even in classical passages which hold her in high esteem, Hecate seems to be an outsider among the gods.  Her very name means “the distant one”.

Hekate, dressed as a huntress, wielding a pair of Eleusinian torches at Heracles and Cerberus (Attic vase, ca. 310 BC)

Hecate may seem like a strange outsider in the Greek pantheon because she was an outsider in the Greek pantheon.  Some scholars believe she was originally a Thracian moon goddess based, in turn, on an ancient and powerful Anatolian goddess.  Unlike other outsider gods, who frequently worked their way into the Greek canon as animal demons, Hecate struck a chord with the Greeks and became a focus of their mystery cults.  Additionally she had an influential worshipper early on in Greek culture: there are few if any references to Hecate before she appears in the works of Hesiod (a major source of Ionic thought who was active sometime between 750 and 650 BC).  Yet in Hesiod’s Theogeny she is a major force of the universe. Perhaps this is because Hesiod’s father was reputedly from Aeolis (a region of Anatolia).  It could be that Hesiod was honoring a local goddess, and his writings became instrumental to securing her place in the Greek canon (where she nonetheless remains an alien).

Hesiod wrote that Hecate was the only child of two Titans, Asteria (goddess of the stars) and Peres (god of might).  Hesiod seems to have regarded her as beautiful and powerful.  In Theogeny, he wrote,

For to this day, whenever any one of men on earth offers rich
sacrifices and prays for favour according to custom, he calls
upon Hecate.  Great honour comes full easily to him whose prayers
the goddess receives favourably, and she bestows wealth upon him;
for the power surely is with her….
The son of Cronus did her no wrong nor took anything away of all that
was her portion among the former Titan gods: but she holds, as
the division was at the first from the beginning, privilege both
in earth, and in heaven, and in sea.  Also, because she is an
only child, the goddess receives not less honour, but much more
still, for Zeus honours her.

Greek writers of the 5th century, maintained Hesiod’s respect for Hecate but they saw her in a darker light.  Euripides writes about her as the patron deity of the sorceress Medea and quite a few of that baleful witch’s invocations are directly to Hecate.

Whatever Hecate’s origins in the near east and ancient Greece, Hecate had morphed from a moon goddess and protector of the young into underworld queen by the era of Alexander, and that is how she was subsequently worshipped by the Romans (who held her very dear).  In Hellenic times and afterwards, Hecate is pictured as a triple goddess.  Sometimes she has been portrayed with three young beautiful faces, but other times she is depicted as simultaneously being a maiden, a mother, and a crone (which seems to be how her contemporary worshippers see her).  Likewise, in one or more of her six arms she always holds a torch.  The other items vary between serpents, keys, daggers, ropes, herbs, and mystery charms.  Speaking of serpents, she was occasionally portrayed with serpent legs or serpent limbs.

The snake was by no means the only creature affiliated with Hecate. Like many chthonic deities of the Mediterranean, she was associated with dogs (particularly black female dogs).  She is said to have had two demon hounds which did her bidding (although it hardly seems important since she was a sorceress of matchless puissance).  Additonally, dogs were sacrificed to her and eaten in her honor. Snakes, owls and other nocturnal creatures were variously seen as sacred to the goddess as was the red mullet, a blood-colored goatfish (which wealthy Romans kept in salt water pens to pamper and train as pets). In terms of botanical symbolism, all manner of poisons were her bailiwick and she was invoked by poisoner and victim alike.  The yew, with its dark symbolism, was particularly sacred to Hecate, and her worshippers planted them around her temples and mystery cult sites.

Agh! It’s Hecate!

As goddess of thresholds she was called on to help people through the two greatest thresholds. She was worshiped both as a midwife (some say the knife and rope in her hands were for tying umbilical cords) and as a sort of supernatural hospice nurse (some assert that her knife, rope, and herbs could be used to slip into the next realm).  Like Athena and Diana, Hecate was a virgin goddess.

I mentioned Hecate’s contemporary worshipers earlier.  Unlike the other Greek gods, who may still inspire artists, poets, and antiquarians but rarely elicit prayers, Hecate continues to have a worldwide following.  Neopaganism has suited her admirably and she has even appeared in a number of hit TV shows.  Her mysterious protean nature seems to appeal to the diffuse and highly-individualized practitioners of Wicca.  One can only imagine how the surly and chauvinistic Hesiod would feel if told that his beloved Hecate had outlived his beloved Olympian Gods to be worshiped and called on as a feminist icon!

Hecate Trimorphe Triodia Phosphorus (digimagicnb, 2011, digital media)

Claude Mollet, Innovator and Gardener to the Kings of France

Devoted readers may have noticed that I haven’t written a garden post for a while.  That’s, um, because my garden is kind of…well…flat.  It got hit by triple punches in the form of a tornado, a giant hail storm, and now winter.  All that’s left is to plant my bulbs, put my roses to bed, and sadly stare at the little yew bush in the corner until Spring comes again with its ancient magic.

During this cold dead season, gardeners fantasize about spectacular gardens they can never have or even see in person.  I personally have been reflecting on parterre gardens and wanted to present a little gallery with pictures of great parterre gardens around the world.  Parterre gardens are highly formal gardens which make use of gravel walkways, flat planted beds, and tightly clipped hedges and topiaries to create extremely precise geometric designs.  They were created at the end of the16th century by Claude Mollet (ca. 1564 – shortly before 1649), the first gardener for three French kings.  The Mollets were a dynasty of exalted gardeners who were much in demand by the French nobility.  Claude’s father was chief gardener at the Château d’Anet where young Claude saw formal style Italian herb gardens being planted.  He admired the geometric precision of these small geometric her beds or compartimens as they were known in France and wondered if they could be made larger.  From this concept sprang a vast world of “embroideries (passements), moresques, arabesques, grotesques, guilloches, rosettes, sunbursts (gloires), escutcheons, coats-of-arms, monograms and emblems (devises)” to quote Jacques Boyceau, another luminary of the early parterre movement.

But enough words!  Enjoy this tiny gallery of parterre gardens from around the world as you plan your spring gardens and get ready to pass the long winter.

Waddesdon formal flower garden

Villandry garden

Tatton Park Gardens

Parterre at le Chateau de la Hulpe

Longwood Garden Topiary Garden

Leaning Pine Aboretum at CalPoly

La Casa Pacifica flower parterre

West Parterre of Hatfield House

Parterre Garden at Hampton Court Palace in London

Parterre at Château de Courances

Bourton House Topiary

Brodsworth Formal GardenHillwood Garden Fountain

Here we are at the end of tree week—an event which isn’t real anywhere but on this blog and which I didn’t even realize was happening until now.  But don’t worry, I’ll be writing more about trees in the future.  I really like them. Anyway, to close out this special week I’m going to write about one of my very favorite trees, the yew.

Yews are a family (Taxaceae) of conifers. The most famous member of the family is Taxus baccata, the common yew, a tree sacred to the ancient tribal people of Britain and Ireland.  Although their strange animist religion was replaced by Christianity, a cursory look at the literature and history of the English, Irish, and Scottish will reveal that the yew has remained sacred to them–albeit under other guises.  The common yew is a small to medium sized conifer with flat, dark green needles.  It grows naturally across Europe, North Africa, and Southwest Asia but the English have planted it everywhere they went (so pretty much everywhere on Earth).  Yews are entirely poisonous except for the sweet pink berry-like aril which surrounds their bitter toxic cone.  The arils are gelatinous and sweet.

The Fortingall Yew in Scotland

Yews grow very slowly, but they don’t stop growing and they can live a very long time.  This means that some specimens are ancient and huge.  The Fortingall yew which grows in a churchyard in Scotland had a girth of 16 meters (or 52 feet) in 1769.  According to local legend Pontius Pilate played under it when he was a boy.  This is only a legend: Pilate was not in Britain during his youth.  The Fortingall yew however was indeed around back in the Bronze Age long before the Romans came to England.  The oldest living thing in Europe, the yew is at least 2000 years old.  According to some estimates it is may be thousands of years older than that.  It was killed by lackwits, souvenir hunters, and incompetent builders in the early nineteenth century…except actually it wasn’t.  The tree merely went dormant for a century (!) before regrowing to its present, substantial girth.  It is one of the 50 notable trees of Great Britain designated by the Exalted Tree Council of the United Kingdom to celebrate their revered monarch’s Golden Jubilee.

The Llangernyw yew tree in Llangernyw Village, Conwy, Wales

As noted, the people of the British Isles loved yews but they loved their horses and livestock even more and objected to having them drop dead from eating the toxic plant.  This means that they planted the tree in their cemeteries and churchyards (or, indeed, built their churches around ancient sacred groves).  According to pre-Christian lore, a spirit requires a bough of yew in order to find the next realm.  Many English poems about death and the underworld incorporate the yew tree as a symbol, a subject, or, indeed as a character.  Aristocrats also had a fondness for yew because it could be sculpted into magnificent dark green topiary for their formal gardens.

Yews as topiary in the formal garden of Levens, Cumbria

The substantial military prowess of the English during the middle ages depended on longbows made of yew.   A good bow needed to be made from a stave cut from the center of the tree so that the inelastic heartwood was next to the springy outer wood.  This meant that yews in England were badly overharvested and the English had to continually buy yew from Europe. To quote Wikipedia “In 1562, the Bavarian government sent a long plea to the Holy Roman Emperor asking him to stop the cutting of yew, and outlining the damage done to the forests by its selective extraction, which broke the canopy and allowed wind to destroy neighboring trees.”

Like many toxic plants, the poisonous yew has substantial medical value.  The extraordinary Persian polymath Abū ‘Alī al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn Sīnā’  (who is known in English as Avicenna) used yew to treat heart conditions in the early eleventh century—this represented the first known use of a calcium channel blocker drugs which finally came into widespread use during the 1960’s.  Today chemotherapy drugs Paclitaxel and Docetaxel are manufactured from compounds taken from yews.  It is believed that the yew’s fundamental cellular nature might yield clues about aging and cellular life cycles (since the yew, like the bristlecone pine, apparently does not undergo deterioration of meristem function).  In other words, Yews do not grow old like other living things.

A final personal note: I naturally put a yew tree in my walled garden in Park Slope.  It’s the only tree I have planted in New York. It grows very slowly but it is indifferent to drought, cold, or the large angry trees around it. It will probably be the only plant I have planted to survive if I abandon my garden.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

October 2020
M T W T F S S
 1234
567891011
12131415161718
19202122232425
262728293031