European Yew

Particolare delle ramo tagliato ed esiccato del tassus baccata (Fototeca ISAL, fotografia di Ferdinando Zanzottera)
Detail of the yew leaf (ISAL Photo Archive, photograph by Ferdinando Zanzottera)

The charming path of pruned Linden (Tilia cordata) trees standing out against the pavilions of the former provincial mental asylum, has transformed part of the garden of Villa Crivelli Pusterla of Limbiate, and conducts visitors to the wood where there is a predomination of evergreens and deciduous trees. Worthy of mention among these, are the yew trees (Taxus baccata) with the dark green, needle-shaped leaves highly contrasting with the brilliant red hue of the mature, red berries which are a delight for birds during winter.

If observed closely, one can note that on the spread branches of the yew which belongs to the Taxaceae family, the leaves are distichous, arranged in two opposite alternate rows, while on the branches that grow vertically they are arranged in a spiral order. The particularity of these shiny, dark green leaves of this evergreen is that though very tapered they are not all prickly. This plant was often cultivated in the Italian landscaped gardens of the noble villas in Lombardy because they were very resistant to the effects of pruning, and offered the possibility of becoming sculptured plants. In fact, its crown can be ideally processed by topiary masters who managed to create perfect geometric or animal shapes. They were thus very diffused in the noble country mansion in Lombardy, and can be found today, not only in the villas of Limbiate, but also at the entrance of the park of Palazzo Arese Borromeo in Cesano Maderno, where small examples set in perfect rows perfectly pruned to resemble cones or flames, welcome visitors and lead them to the splendid garden, a silent oasis constantly battling with daily urban traffic. Another important example is found in the “Theatre of Greens” of Villa Visconti Borromeo Litta in Lainate, a nature theatre composed of a series of yews, once strictly pruned to a cut pyramid intended for musical and theatre shows.
At Villa Crivelli Pusterla the yews testify to the ancient splendour of the romantic wood, where still today visitors can enjoy the cool shadows offered by their thick fronds.
This plant blooms in February-March and is a dioecious species, because the flowers are borne by different individuals. The male buds are yellow, small and round, and appear singularly at the lower part of the leaf axils of the previous year, while those of the female buds are minute and green, and after fertilization bear red shiny fruits in the shape of a cup (arils), which contain the seeds.
The branches and leaves of the yew contain an alkaloid substance called taxin, which if ingested may lead to cardiac arrest; therefore the plant is highly toxic. However, birds nesting in the trees feed on their fleshy fruit. Arils, slimy to the touch and with a sweet taste, are non-toxic, unlike the seeds which contain massive doses of taxin.
This feature also has earned the yew the nickname, “tree of death,” so that in the days of mourning in ancient Rome, there was the habit of wearing a crown made of its branches.