|Grand fir, Pacific yew, and western hemlock|
The bark of Pacific yew was nearly its undoing. Scientists discovered a drug called Taxol in the bark, which proved to be an effective treatment for various cancers. The problem was that it required large amounts of yew bark to render a small amount of Taxol. Also, since the yews are not common, the supply of yew bark was quite limited. It became apparent very quickly that harvesting large amounts of Pacific yew bark was not sustainable. Fortunately for the Pacific yew, scientists soon discovered a way to synthesize Taxol from the needles of the English yew (Taxus baccata). This yew is a common cultivated shrub and easily regrows after trimming, making it ideal for hedges and topiaries. The clippings from yew hedges and other plantings provide a steady supply of yew material that can be used to manufacture Taxol. Even though Pacific yew is no longer used as a source for Taxol, it was key to the discovery of the drug.
Other uses: The wood of Pacific yew is exceptionally hard and strong. The first people to live in the Northwest used it for tools, canoe paddles and weapons, especially bows. They even used wedges made of yew to split cedar. The needles and bark of the yew also had various medicinal uses. Pacific yew has little commercial use today, but it is still used to make bows.
Names: Taxus is Latin for yew. Brevifolia is Latin for "short leaved," so named because its needles are shorter than those of English yew. Other common names: California yew, western yew, and mountain mahogany.
At one time all yews were considered to be subspecies of English yew. Now they are commonly classified as about seven different species. Besides English yew, which is native to Europe and sometimes called European yew, there are four species native to North America, and two native to Asia: Canada yew, Florida yew, Mexican yew, Pacific yew, Japanese yew, and Chinese yew.
Taxus brevifolia in The Gymnosperm Database
Pacific Yew in Silvics of North America
Wikipedia entry for Pacific Yew
The Story of Taxol
Yew cuttings help cancer research