Unless confronted with more elaborate topiary forms, the urbanite is only passively aware of the importance of hedges in landscape architecture. Yet, the usual simplicity of hedge rows serves as a clear visual reference for the boundary between wild and cultivated, or public and private spaces. In short, hedges serve as green borders whether functional (see the Great Hedge of India) or aesthetic. In Berlin, the European Yew (Taxus baccata) is commonly employed as a hedge, although this particular use of the yew grossly understates its historical and medicinal significance.
The yew is one of the most ancient trees of Europe and a number of living specimens are thought to be thousands of years old (for example, the Fortingall Yew in Scotland). The earliest known wooden artifact is a yew spear, and the flexibility and durability of the yew tree have made it a preferred material for weapon-making throughout the centuries. The yew achieved notoriety in military history as the source of the renowned English longbow, the long range and deadly force of which helped win many battles for the English.
In the 1960s, compounds from the bark of the Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia) were discovered to have anti-cancer properties. Today, Taxol (or paclitaxel) is considered an effective drug in the fight against ovarian cancer. However, before the active compound was successfully synthesized, the bark of four grown yew trees was only enough to treat a single cancer patient, so it is no surprise that the Pacific Yew quickly became an endangered species.
All parts of the yew (also known as “Tree of Death”) are extremely toxic, and concoctions made from the leaves and seeds have been used to commit suicide since ancient times. Yet, as any fearless forager knows, the flesh of the red berries (called arils) is edible and deliciously sweet. Care must be taken to eat only the berry and to completely avoid the seed in the middle! In Germany, the yew has been named “Giftpflanze des Jahres 2011” (poisonous plant of the year, 2011) in order to create awareness of its toxicity and possible fatalities due to its ingestion.