PACIFIC YEW – Lost Treasure in the Forest?

Denny Barnes, OLWC Board Member

Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia) is a small inconspicuous understory tree.  From 1993-2013, they were indiscriminately stripped from our forests to make the powerful anti-cancer drug Taxol.  It took about six 100+-year-old Yews to make enough Taxol to treat one cancer patient. My wife is a cancer survivor because of Pacific Yew, but few Yews have survived.  Taxol can now be semi-synthesized from the needles of European Yews, but Pacific Yew populations are already so diminished the tree is now considered endangered.  It is so slow-growing that it may require a century or more to restore Pacific Yew populations to our forests.

But for the beautiful red berries (arils) that appear on mature female trees in the summer, they can be difficult to spot. Growing in the shade of conifers with rather sparse foliage, only the berries and the reddish-brown bark stand out.

This long-lived tree is very slow-growing. The juvenile-looking tree above may in fact be 75-100 years old. The Oswego Lake Watershed Council is working very hard to propagate and plant Pacific Yew in our native forests.  They will reach out from the shady understory and grow into the light for a thousand years or more.  May they lead us to a brighter future.