The Yorkshire Vet, Julian Norton reflects on plant medicine while chopping down a yew tree

I took a deep breath. It was certainly the largest thing I’d ever tried to remove. It had grown slowly. Maybe it should have been cut out earlier, when it was smaller.

A number of different cures are found in plant leaves and berries
A number of different cures are found in plant leaves and berries

It would have been a simpler task. I pondered which of the laid-out instruments to use first. Instinctively, I reached for the saw, before thinking better of it.

“If I can just reduce its bulk first,” I thought and put down the saw. The loppers would surely be a better choice. “If I can get those lower branches off it’s less likely to hit me on the head when I eventually use the axe.”

As the branches tumbled around me, I felt sad because I don’t like cutting down trees. But over the last 18 years, the once-small bush had totally outgrown its place and it needed to go.

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    Even worse, its needle-like leaves contained an important and powerful chemical and it seemed wasteful not to make the most of its medicinal properties. I’m sure I remember in the past that people used to collect the fallen branches of yew trees and send them to pharmaceutical companies; the ultimate in recycling. Or is it up-cycling? But I’d searched everywhere online and this doesn’t seem to be a thing any more. It’s not economical.

    Yew is full of chemicals called taxines. Most are dangerous and cause rapid death as a result of toxicity to the heart. All vets who work with cattle have examined mouths and rumens during a post-mortem for signs of the spikey evergreen.

    It’s a classic cause of unexpected death if cattle or sheep browse the wrong greenery. Some of these chemicals, however, can be converted into anti-cancer medication, notably the drug Tamoxifen. Apparently, it takes six 100-year-old yew trees to treat one cancer patient, which explains why they don’t collect it from yew trees anymore.

    But yew is not the only plant filled with powerful drugs. Periwinkles provide great ground cover and look pretty with lovely little lilac flowers (until they take over your flower beds and strangle everything else). They also make cool chemicals called vinca-alkaloids, from which the staple chemotherapy drugs vincristine and vinblastine derive. I’ve injected countless vials into dogs suffering from lymphoma over the years.

    Foxgloves are jam-packed with digitalis, a great drug for treating a heart condition called atrial fibrillation. The list of plant-derived medicines is almost endless; aspirin from the bark of willow trees – discovered as far back as the 18th century; morphine from a brown resin in poppy plants, atropine – the mouth-drying and pupil-dilating drug – from deadly nightshade, otherwise known as belladonna because the effects of making the pupils large was thought (at least by Cleopatra) to make them more alluring.

    Away from the plant kingdom there is another huge list of medicines in the wonderful world of fungi. Penicillin, the first antibiotic; cyclosporin, the first immunosuppressant to make transplant surgery a possibility and statins, now lowering cholesterol and apparently extending the lives of cheese-lovers indefinitely.

    The pile of removed branches was getting bigger and the tree correspondingly smaller. I piled up the bigger branches and shoved the clippings into the green recycling bin until it was full, then jumped in to squash it down.

    One jam-packed wheelie bin and a large pile of logs. I reckoned that would treat approximately one tenth of a cancer patient, which I felt sure was better than nothing. It seemed a shame to turn it into compost.