Beside the front entrance to the Tisbury School, an evergreen tree grows against the brickwork. It appears to be a yew, according to experts. The yew is what Cornell University describes as the “tree of death,” and the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences calls “one of the most poisonous woody plants in the world.”
Ingestion of yew can be fatal to people and animals, according to the American Conifer Society. “All species of yew contain highly poisonous alkaloids known as taxanes,” according to the society website. “All parts of the tree except the arils contain the alkaloid. The arils are edible and sweet, but the seed is dangerously poisonous; unlike birds, the human stomach can break down the seed coat and release the taxanes into the body. This can have fatal results if yew ‘berries’ are eaten without removing the seeds first. Grazing animals, particularly cattle and horses, are also sometimes found dead near yew trees after eating the leaves, though deer are able to break down the poisons, and will eat yew foliage freely.”
Shown photographs of the plant, Tim Boland of Polly Hill Arboretum, Marc Fournier of Mytoi Japanese garden, and John Delrosso of the Arnold Arboretum thought the plant looked like a yew. When the possibility a poisonous plant on the school grounds was pointed out to Superintendent of Schools Matt D’Andrea, he said if it proved to be true, the plant would likely be removed.
Adam Moore of Sheriff’s Meadow said if the tree is replaced, it might make a nice Arbor Day activity for the students to participate in planting a substitute tree. Fournier suggested much the same thing. Fournier, who is a horticulturist and Moore, who is a forester, both offered to help such an endeavor if it comes to pass.
Since antiquity people have intentionally and unintentionally died from eating yew, and in Europe, ancient specimens can be found in old church graveyards, academic papers show. The common yew, Taxus baccata, is often used as an ornamental shrub or a border hedge. When not pruned, it can grow tree-size, according to Fournier. He surmised that’s what occured with the plant growing against the school.
When informed about the possibility a yew was growing at the Tisbury School, Chris Huntress, president and CEO of Huntress Associates, the landscape architecture and planning firm involved in major track and field work at the high school, said, “It’s probably in their best interests to remove it.”