Plant Talk Magazine

Issue 24 – January 2001

Book Reviews
Ancient Yew as Author

The Story of Yew. Guido Mina di Sospiro

The title of this book is exactly what it is, the charming story of a centuries-old Irish yew tree. It is a tale narrated by the tree itself and takes the reader on an exciting journey through time, history, legend, religion and even the biology of Taxus baccata. The yewess, for it is a female tree, has experienced many things living beside a beautiful lake in Ireland.

In her two thousand year chronicle the first humans she encounters are male head-hunters; throughout this novel there is a strong preference for females, making this somewhat of a feminine saga. Yew encounters druids, Romans, St Patrick, a hermit and many more. Set in Ireland there is a strong influence of Celtic myth and legend and its affinity to nature. It is impressive how much an Italian botanist has captured the Celtic spirit. It is not unintentional that the first destroyers of the forest and Yew’s beloved companion, a strawberry tree, were Franciscan friars. Yew springs back from this severed trunk by putting out twelve new sprouts.

Each event in her life is full of symbolism and in this case the monks see in the sprouts the twelve apostles and build a cloister around the stump of Yew, and the saga continues through ups and downs over the next 550 years. In spite of all the myth and fantasy, this is a book with a message but it is also impressive for its scientific accuracy. It is a tree talking about the human race and the gradually increasing destruction of nature.

This scholarly work is likely to become a classic of the conservation literature. For those seeking more background about each chapter, the book ends with an ‘Author’s compendium’, which offers most interesting information and shows the wide-ranging scholarship and philosophy of the author. His novel approach to story-telling has produced a book which is hard to put down until the final page. Lastly I must commend the appropriate black and white drawings of Ernesto Pescini that have captured the spirit of the yew tree.

Professor Sir Ghillean Prance FRS, VMH;
Director of The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, from 1988 to 1999;
Scientific Director of The Eden Project;
McBryde Professor, National Tropical Botanical Garden;
Ethnobotanist and author.