I bumped against a branch of a yew tree at the local cemetery today, then spent the next 10 minutes brushing myself down. Why? Because March and April are the months the male yew trees shed their yellow pollen. The yew is dioecious (‘di’ meaning two and ‘oikos’, from the Greek, meaning house), so the male and female flowers grow on separate trees. The male flowers, called cones, start as small green buds, then develop into yellowish-white globes that open to release their pollen from tiny florets.
The yew tree is very long-lived – I have yet to visit the 4000-year-old tree that grows in a North Wales churchyard but it’s certainly on my list. In fact, the yew can frequently be seen in churchyards, though this association may have a pre-Christian origin – the evergreen yew provides dense shade so was often planted at pagan sites of worship, which were then taken over by the early Christians to build their churches. There is a more practical reason for yews in churchyards, too – the leaves are poisonous to the sheep that were used to ‘mow’ the grass around the graves so the trees survived the sheep’s eager grazing.