Unlike many other conifers, Yew does not actually bear its seeds in a cone. Botanically speaking, a modified scale wraps around a single seed and forms a fleshy, red fruit called an aril. Both the seed coat as well as the foliage of Yew contain toxic alkaloids. Birds’ digestive systems do not break down the seed coats on the seeds so they are unharmed by eating the berries, seed and all, but the human digestive tract begins to break down the seeds and toxins are released.
For hundreds of years, people used Yew alkaloids as both a method of suicide and a chemical weapon during hunting and warfare. Even sleeping beneath the shade of a Yew bush was once considered dangerous. Today paclitaxel, a plant alkaloid derived from Yews, is used as an anti-cancer chemotherapy drug (Taxol is one of its brand names).
Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.