Churchyards in Europe have a unique feature. They have the dark and mysterious yew trees, and many of them are several centuries old.
Rightfully considered the oldest tree in Europe, the yew located in St. Cynog’s churchyard in Powys in Wales is a marvelous natural wonder. Estimates tell us that it could be more than 5,000 years old. There are more than 250 yew trees in the UK, all classified as “ancient” or over 900 years old.
It’s not easy dating a yew tree. But the tree at St. Cynog underwent DNA dating and ring counting. The tests were done by the Forestry Institute, and the rings suggested that it was about 5 millennia old, making it the oldest non-clonal tree in Europe. In California, there is also another non-clonal tree, and it is estimated to be 5,068 years old. But since dating these trees is very hard, we cannot tell for sure which of the two is older.
However, after this discovery, the Fortingall Yew, found in Perthshire in Scotland, is no longer the oldest tree in Europe. This ancient tree is aged between 3,000 and 5,000 years.
The biggest complication with dating these trees is that the central trunk splits into two or more main stems, and that makes ring dating them especially difficult.
St. Cynog’s yew tree presents the same problem, and so does the Fortingall Yew, both of which have fractured trunks.
Even though the trees are so old, they are still very healthy, and several centuries of life should be ahead of them.
These ancient trees also tend to carry some bit of history as well. For instance, there is a tree in Crowhurst that was found to have a cannonball lodged in it. It is believed to have been from the English Civil War which took place between 1642 and 1651.
The point is this: if the St. Cynog tree is as old as this dating suggests it is, then it is centuries older than the Great Pyramid of Giza. At the time the Romans got to Britain, it must have been thousands of years old.
Anyway, over time, the yew trees throughout England have grown to have a mythological significance, as they are linked to death and resurrection. The Greeks see them as symbols of decay and regeneration.
This has something to do with their legendary regenerative powers and long lives. Even when their trunks are split open, they live on. In fact, they can take a lot of damage and still live through it.
In the past, before Christianity took root, the yew trees were choice locations for pagan rituals. These rituals often involved death and sacrifice.
Later, Christianity came along, and followers of this religion linked the trees to Lent and Easter where they were seen as signs of the death and the resurrection of Christ.
That is why they are planted in churchyards and graveyards to watch over the dead and ensure they resurrect.
South Downs National Park in England is home to some of the oldest yew trees in existence. These trees are between 500 and 2,000 years old.
We can only hope that these trees will live on for many centuries to come.