Herb: Pacific Yew

Latin name: Taxus brevifolia

Family: Taxaceae (Yew Family)

Medicinal use of Pacific Yew:

The Pacific yew is a highly toxic plant but it was employed medicinally by several native North American Indian tribes who used it to treat a variety of complaints. Modern research has shown that it contains the substance "taxol" in its shoots and bark. Taxol has shown exciting potential as an anti-cancer drug, particularly in the treatment of ovarian cancers. Unfortunately, the concentrations of taxol are rather low and the bark of 6 trees is required to provide enough taxol to treat one patient. This remedy is very toxic and, even when used externally, should only be used under the supervision of a qualified practitioner. See also the notes above on toxicity. All parts of the plant, except the fleshy fruit, are diaphoretic and pectoral. A decoction of the branches and leaves has been used in the treatment of lung problems. An infusion of the crushed leaves has been used externally as a wash to cause perspiration and effect a general improvement in the health. A poultice of the crushed leaves has been applied to wounds. A decoction of small woody pieces has been used in the treatment of internal complaints including stomach pains and blood in the urine. The leaves are harvested in early autumn or spring, the bark from autumn to spring, for commercial extraction of taxol.

Description of the plant:


15 m
(49 feet)

to May

Habitat of the herb:

Growing singly or in small clumps on the banks of mountain streams, in deep gorges and ravines, especially under large coniferous trees.

Edible parts of Pacific Yew:

Fruit - raw. Very sweet and gelatinous, most people find it delicious though some find it sickly. The fruit is a fleshy berry about 8mm in diameter and containing a single seed. Trees usually produce good crops every year. All other parts of this plant, including the seed, are highly poisonous. When eating the fruit you should spit out the large seed found in the fruit's centre. Should you swallow the whole seed it will just pass straight through you without harm, if the seed has been bitten into, however, it could cause some problems.

Other uses of the herb:

A red paint was made by mixing the woodchips with oil. The roots have been used as the weft in twined basketry. The root is very strong and is particularly good for hopper mortar baskets. Wood - fine-grained, strong, hard, heavy, durable and resilient, taking a very fine polish. Though hard, the wood is easy to carve. It is also used for making paddles, fence posts and various other small articles.

Propagation of Pacific Yew:

Seed - can be very slow to germinate, often taking 2 or more years. It is best sown as soon as it is ripe in the autumn when it should germinate 18 months later. Stored seed may take 2 years or more to germinate. 4 months warm followed by 4 months cold stratification may help reduce the germination time. Harvesting the seed "green" (when fully developed but before it has dried on the plant) and then sowing it immediately has not been found to reduce the germination time because the inhibiting factors develop too early. Prick out the seedlings into individual pots once they are large enough to handle and grow them on in pots in a cold frame. The seedlings are very slow-growing and will probably require at least 2 years of pot cultivation before being large enough to plant out. Any planting out is best done in late spring or early summer, after the last expected frosts. Cuttings of half-ripe terminal shoots, 5 - 8cm long, July/August in a shaded frame. Should root by late September but leave them in the frame over winter and plant out in late spring. High percentage. Cuttings of ripe terminal shoots, taken in winter after a hard frost, in a shaded frame.

Cultivation of the herb:

Growing singly or in small clumps on the banks of mountain streams, in deep gorges and ravines, especially under large coniferous trees.

Known hazards of Taxus brevifolia:

All parts of the plant, except the flesh of the fruit, are highly poisonous.

Plant information taken from the Plants For A Future.