Name: Pacific Yew
Scientific Name: Taxus brevifolia
OK, I know this plant doesn’t bloom. It is selected for this column because it is a native plant that few people are familiar with, or they don’t know it grows in the Blue Mountains. There aren’t many still here. It is found from British Columbia to central California, and east to southern Alberta, northern Idaho, northwest Montana, and in northeast Oregon.
Taxus is the Latin name for the European yew tree, and Taxos is the Greek name for it. Brevifolia is Latin for short leaf.
The tree is a “conifer.” But without a cone. It has what is called an aril, which looks like a small, reddish-orange, smooth berry with an open tip and a single seed inside. Imagine a small stuffed olive with the hole at the end, but with the pimento removed and the seed exposed down in the middle.
The needles on the branches look much like regular pine needles, but are shorter than those of other conifers in the Blues, and the branches are spreading or drooping. The bark has broad, flat, irregular, thin plates that shred and peel off with time. The older bark plates are grayish and the plates underneath are reddish or reddish-purple.
The Pacific Yew as well as the European Yew have been used in the past to make bows, and the Greek word taxon means bow. The hard and durable wood has probably had other uses over millennia. More recently the Pacific Yew was a source for the cancer drug Taxol, which is now made synthetically.
BEWARE: almost every part of the tree is deadly poisonous. Very small amounts of bark, needles, seeds, or even the sap are said to be enough to kill a person. It’s probably best to wash your hands after handling it.
Where to find: There are a few examples of yew trees at the Umatilla Forks Campground.