Is Yew Poisonous?

2023-11-14 14:49:22

With their evergreen foliage and ornamental berries, yew plants are a popular choice for gardens and landscaping. However, these attractive shrubs and trees also contain toxic compounds that can pose a hazard to people, pets, and wildlife. Understanding the risks associated with yew is critical for safe handling and management.

Understanding Yew Plants

Yew refers to various species of coniferous plants in the Taxus genus. Common varieties used in landscaping include English yew (Taxus baccata), Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata), and Canadian yew (Taxus canadensis). Yews are characterized by flat, dark green needles and red berries that some species produce in autumn. Slow-growing and tolerant of pruning, yews have an attractive, dense appearance that makes them a staple in formal gardens.

Toxic Components of Yew

All parts of a yew plant, except for its red fleshy arils that surround the seeds, contain toxic taxine alkaloids. The highest concentrations are found in the leaves and seeds. Taxine alkaloids can cause cardiac arrhythmias, muscle tremors, respiratory failure, collapse, and potentially death. The taxanes found in Yew Extract Powder are also recognized for their chemotherapy applications. However, when ingested, these compounds are extremely toxic. Just 200mg of yew leaf material can constitute a fatal dose.

Historical and Cultural Significance

The toxicity of yew has been recognized since ancient times, but the plants also had symbolic meaning in some cultures. Greeks planted yews in graveyards as their poisonous qualities were believed to indicate the underworld and afterlife. In medieval England, yew wood was valued for making longbows. Yew plants have appeared in literature and myths including Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where witches used “slips of yew” in their brews.

Toxicity in Humans and Animals

In humans, ingesting parts of a yew plant initially causes stomach pains, muscle tremors, and difficulty breathing. In some cases, collapse can occur within hours of exposure. Without rapid treatment, cardiac arrest and death can follow.

Lethal doses for livestock and pets are quite low due to their smaller body sizes. Symptoms are similar to those in humans. Unfortunately, the sweet taste of yew needles often attracts animals and curious children. Cattle have also been poisoned from baled hay containing dried yew cuttings.

Yew in the Environment  

Yew plants are not native in many areas where they are popular in landscaping. Some ecologists express concern about the potential invasiveness of non-native yews. The toxicity to livestock and wildlife like deer is also a consideration for parks and nature areas. Some jurisdictions regulate or advise against planting yews on public lands. Property owners should research local guidelines when selecting shrubs.

Handling and Management

When trimming yews, wear gloves and protective clothing to minimize skin contact with leaves and stems. Dispose of clippings and pruned branches properly by bagging material and taking it to hazardous waste facilities. Composting new material is not recommended.

In spaces accessible to children, pets, or livestock, avoid planting yews or placing them out of reach. Fence off yew plantings and post warning signs about the toxicity. Homeowners with yews should proactively remove any fallen leaves, berries, and seeds.

Case Studies and Incidents

The toxicity of yew continues to claim lives due to a lack of public awareness. In one tragic case, a gardener clearing branches at a church succumbed to yew poisoning from the smoke and dust created. Livestock deaths often occur when farmers or ranchers landscape with yew plants or store clippings in feed areas. Without prompt medical treatment, human poisoning cases often end in fatalities. Public outreach and education are critical for reducing these preventable deaths.

How much yew is poisonous to humans?

Even small amounts of yew plant material can be fatal if ingested by humans. According to toxicology reports, the lethal dose for half of the tested population (LD50) is approximately 3.5 mg per kg of body weight. This means a dose of just 200-250 mg could be lethal for some adults.

The highest concentrations of toxic taxines are found in yew leaves and seeds. Ingesting as little as 10-20 seeds may constitute a fatal dose in humans if not promptly treated. Even the fleshy red arils surrounding the seeds should not be eaten in large quantities. A general rule is to avoid ingesting any part of a yew plant due to its extreme toxicity.  

For perspective, one yew leaf contains enough toxins to kill an adult if consumed. That’s approximately 400 times more potent than cyanide, gram for gram. So while the attractively packaged seeds, sweet foliage, or pleasing smoke may seem appealing, no amount of yew plant should ever be ingested. Just minute quantities can have dire consequences.

Are yews toxic to dogs?

Yes, yew plants are extremely toxic and potentially lethal to dogs that ingest any part of them. All components of the yew contain taxine alkaloids, but the leaves, seeds, and stems have the highest concentration of these dangerous toxins.

Dogs often eat yew trees and shrubs due to their sweet, appealing taste. However, the toxins can quickly cause vomiting, panting, collapsing, seizures, coma, and death. Just a few seeds or leaves can be fatal depending on the dog’s size and how much was consumed.

Pet owners need to be vigilant about keeping dogs away from yews planted in their landscapes. Never compost pruned yew leaves where dogs may access them. Fallen foliage and berries should be promptly removed and discarded where dogs can’t get to them. Consider planting dog-safe shrubs instead of yew. If ingestion occurs, take the dog to the vet immediately for rapid decontamination and treatment to prevent fatal cardiac complications.

Can you eat off yew wood?

No, yew wood should never be used to eat food or create items that come in contact with food. Though the heartwood contains lower alkaloid levels than other yew parts, toxins can still leach from the wood into foods. Using yew wood for cooking, eating utensils, or food preparation surfaces poses a poisoning risk.

Historically, yew wood was valued for crafting longbows and musical instruments. While these uses are safer than food contact, some toxicity precautions are still warranted when working extensively with the wood. Wear gloves and respirators to limit exposure to wood particles and dust when carving, turning, or sanding yew wood.

For any items where oils, moisture, or substances will penetrate the wood, avoid yew and choose safer, non-toxic alternatives. When in doubt, do not use yew wood for any purpose involving food, drink, smoking, or medications. The potential for poisoning makes it unsuitable for such uses.

What are the effects of eating yew?

Eating any part of a yew causes severe, potentially fatal poisoning. Within 30 minutes to several hours of ingesting yew leaves, seeds, stems or berries, toxic effects including the following occur:

- Abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting

- Dizziness, weakness, difficulty breathing

- Muscle tremors, convulsions, paralysis

- Irregular heart rate, low blood pressure  

- Respiratory failure, cardiac arrest

- Coma, organ damage, death

Yew disrupts critical ion channels that regulate heart rhythm and cardiac cell function. Resulting arrhythmias and cardiac arrest are often irreversible and lethal without extremely prompt medical treatment to clear toxins and restore normal heart activity.

If yew poisoning is caught early, activated charcoal may be administered to absorb toxins in the digestive tract before full absorption. Medications can treat some symptoms. But the only proven antidote is a drug called digoxin immune fab, which must be given very quickly to be effective.

Prevention is critical with yew since the effects of poisoning are swift and often fatal. Keep this highly toxic plant away from children and pets and never intentionally ingest any part.


While prized for their ornamental qualities, yews contain highly poisonous taxine alkaloids that pose a risk to people, pets, and wildlife. Toxicity and potency vary among species but all plant parts are dangerous if ingested. Just a few yew leaves or seeds can be lethal to humans and animals. Caution is advised when handling yews in gardens, and they should be kept out of reach of children and pets. Awareness and preventative measures are vital to avoid tragic poisoning incidents involving this popular landscaping plant. With prudence and proper management, the benefits of yew's beauty can be enjoyed safely.

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7. Please let me know if you would like me to incorporate any of these references directly into the article text to cite relevant research. I can add citations in the proper format.