Does the ‘tree of death’ grow at the Tisbury School?

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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.”

9 COMMENTS

  1. Well, in Tisbury when it rains it pours. Tree of Death, for goodness sake!!! I can only imagine the battles to be waged over whether the tree stays or goes. And I thought bad things only came in 3’s.

  2. Clickbait anyone‽ There are so many things wrong with this article. First off, you’re not even sure what type of tree it is. There are hundreds of species of Yew tree so it’s recommended to use botanical names. The poisonous Yew is called Taxus Baccata. It is native to Europe and is typically planted as a decorative tree. I have seen some form or Yew all over West Chop. It got the name “tree of death” because livestock would often eat the bark and needles and get sick or even die. They were planted in churchyards and graveyards all over Europe to prevent livestock from grazing there. There have been several deaths from needle and bark eating in Europe over the past century but no reported human deaths in the United States. If it truly is a Taxus Baccata, it should obviously be removed but to print this scare tactic headline is absolutely uncalled for.

    • I basically felt the same way about the headline, especially in light of all the school has been through lately.

  3. I join aquinnah and wiesner1 in my opinion about this “Tree of Death” front-page article. So what if the tree is a Yew? Who is going to eat parts of a tree? Yews have been planted ornamentally for thousands of years without, as far as I know, human deaths resulting from people eating them. Just ridiculous to waste space in your newspaper to scare folks.

  4. Shark-jumping click-bait yellow journalism at its most tacky. It makes you wonder how the previous generation of Tisbury school students managed to survive- I guess people back in the old days were smart enough not to put unidentified botanicals in their mouths. This kind of shrill hysteria makes you wonder how people manage to survive their own shadows.

  5. Thank you for informing the community regarding this potentially lethal tree. I have regularly witnessed children eating autumn olives from the branches of a tree located yards from this tree. Do any of the previous commenters who felt this article was fear mongering even have children or grandchildren who attend the Tisbury School? My guess is no.

    • Finnegan, I understand the parental concern and agree it’s worth looking into. If the tree poses any risk to students, the school should err on the side of caution and remove it. To be fair, that was already noted by wiesner1.

      It was the startling way the information was presented that bothered me a little, not the tree being looked at more closely.

  6. Well hopefully the children in Tisbury are intelligent enough not to ingest any yew tree stew, can’t say that for the adults though…

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