Hiding in Plain Sight: The Elusive Pacific Yew

Picture the scene. You’re hunting the forests of the Pacific Northwest in search of record giants. On a hillside you can see the outline of a massive trunk in the distance. Is it a Western Red Cedar? Douglas fir? Whatever the answer is, you’re determined to find out! You struggle up the steep slope, and suddenly that tree disappears quickly, as though it had been an apparition. Why? Because now you’re going to have to scramble over some fallen timber and around a sharp cliff face before you can see it again. You press on, momentarily cursing the obstructions, and grab onto a nearby limb to pull yourself upward. Oddly, you observe, the tree you’re holding onto also has needles growing out of the trunk, and its bark is a beautifully understated hue of reddish brown, and then you look upward…and realize the tree in question is a very sizeable Pacific Yew!

The ever present Pacific Yew, often inconspicuous and not as large as its forest companions, but highly unique

That, so often, is typical of how one happens upon a yew in the forest. It grows inconspicuously, its base preferring the shaded understory beneath the towering trees above. Meanwhile, its upper branches reach higher into the forest canopy, gathering more sunlight for growth. Quite often you’ll see one from afar and assume it’s either dead, or deciduous, as frequently there is little foliage on the lower extremities of an older specimen. The overwhelming notion, though, is that you seem to stumble upon them, as though they are hidden in plain sight!

Introducing “The Elk”, one very interesting Pacific Yew. The tree is very opportunistic and is often noted for its unusual shapes

While they aren’t frequent topics of discussion among tree hunters, they are nevertheless highly significant forest dwellers. Their flaking bark is frequently home to mosses that give refuge to flora, and their trunks, which are usually  hollow, are often home to Douglas Squirrels and other small rodents. At higher elevations, the tree grows closer to the ground and seems to have more limbs. Quite often, when you walk a mountain trail at elevations up to 800m, you’ll inadvertently grab a piece of one to assist you upward!

Closeup of yew tree

The giants of the species are not exceptionally large when compared to their forest companions. The largest one in British Columbia, for example, is just 0.91m in diameter at breast height, fairly modest in comparison to, say, that 14 foot wide cedar that may be growing nearby!  It has a consistent habit of rotting from the inside out, making it difficult to determine its precise age, but I’ve managed to find several that are at least 300 years old. It also boasts wood that is exceptionally hard, which can dull  a chainsaw chain after a single cut, or so I’ve been told.

Any time you find a yew around two to three feet wide you have yourself a very old tree
Doug with an amazing Pacific Yew, in North Vancouver’s Hydraulic Creek

I’ve grown fond of these underrated denizens of the rainforest over the years. The next time you walk through an ancient forest, take a closer look around. You might soon find yourself looking at a beautiful Pacific Yew, and once you do, you’ll be seeing the forest for ALL the trees!

The noble Pacific Yew

4 thoughts on “Hiding in Plain Sight: The Elusive Pacific Yew”

  1. A few years ago, we found a huge Pacific yew northwest of Packwood, WA. Bob VanPelt and Chris Earle were with us, and they thought it could a champion, certainly in Washington State.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not even sure which one is the current champion, Darvel. Here in B.C., I think there have been some big ones found near Port Alberni in the lat few years. Information has been hard to come by!


  2. Definitely a tree you stumble across – I’m not even sure I can pinpoint where I’ve seen one recently! I remember seeing one on the way down to Pebble Creek hot springs some years back and caused some bemusement when I stopped in my tracks and started exclaiming about it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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