History: ‘Yew’ might find this hard to believe…

This Pacific Yew in front of the Maplewood Presbyterian Church at the intersection of 196th Street Southwest and 84th Avenue West in Edmonds is estimated to be possibly between 450 and 550 years old.

Location’s history

In the early 1900s the Maplewood area, like most of the surrounding acreage, was heavily logged. The dense forests of red cedar and various trees appropriate for shingles and lumber were basically clear cut.  This Pacific Yew was most likely living in the understory of the dense forest at that time. The Pacific Yew’s wood is not appropriate for either shingles or lumber so it was fortunately spared.

Author’s note: Pacific Yews (taxus brevifolia) are a native tree that grows along the Pacific coast from Alaska to northern California. The Pacific Yew as a species is not endangered, but it is fairly rare.

After logging was completed in Maplewood by 1915, small “stump” farms — typically 5 acres in size — began to dot the landscape.  The stumps were removed and farmhouses, barns and outbuildings — along with cows, orchards and strawberry fields — became common in the area.

This remained the norm until the end of World War II, when the land was further subdivided for smaller residential lots, and developers began to build subdivisions for the returning soldiers who were receiving funds for housing under the GI Bill

In addition to the explosion of growing families and the need for housing was the emergence of small churches supporting the growing suburban neighborhoods. One of those was a small group of Presbyterians who began looking for a site to build a new church in the Maplewood area in 1952.

In 1953, a site was identified at the intersection of 196th and 84th in Edmonds. A sales agreement was successfully reached between the church members and the land owners, Albert and Georgie Ewing, and the large corner lot was acquired for $7,500. With the purchase came the Pacific Yew.

A 1953 sign announcing the new home of the Maplewood Presbyterian Church. The Pacific Yew is not in this photo. (Photo courtesy of the church)

The initial church building was completed in 1956, and the Pacific Yew is very prominent on the left side of the following photo.

The new Maplewood Presbyterian Church in October 1956. (Photo courtesy of the church)

Over the next 15 years, the church and its outreach continued to grow. In 1972, the church added a wing to the initial building, and the Pacific Yew can again be seen clearly to the right in this photo from 50 years ago.

1972 construction materials for the new church wing and the Pacific Yew  to the right. (Photo courtesy Maplewood Presbyterian Church)

The Maplewood Pacific Yew — a treasure

This tree is unusual due to its size and health. It is rare that a Pacific Yew’s trunk exceed 20 inches in diameter, but the Maplewood tree’s diameter is close to 42 inches.  The tree is approximately 44 feet tall, and has a spread of 46 feet.  In measuring its trunk this week, we were able to establish that the trunk circumference — at 4 feet high — is an amazing 11 feet.

Photo by Byron Wilkes with assistance from Alan Charlson.

Given that Pacific Yews are very slow growing, several experts estimate the tree to be 450 years old and possibly as much as 550 years old. No one can know for sure until the tree’s rings can be counted.

Author’s note: A Pacific Yew succumbed a few years back on Mercer Island, and it was found to be about 600 years old when it was cut down.

Photo by Byron Wilkes

Author’s note:  This 4-inch-wide section of a younger Pacific Yew trunk has 47 rings. As the Pacific Yew ages the rings will potentially get slightly wider, so it’s impossible to know how old the Maplewood tree is, but it is extremely old.

Additional facts regarding the Pacific Yew species

The Pacific Yew is considered to be dioecious, meaning there needs to be a male tree and a female tree to pollinate. The male tree produces the pollen and the female produces the seed cone.  In the Pacific Yew’s case, the female tree’s seed cone is in the form of red berries. Pacific Yews do not produce what is commonly considered a cone.

The Pacific Yew’s bark is reddish in color and often scaly, which makes it easily recognizable when compared to firs or red cedars.

Pacific Yew’s scaly bark. (Photo by Byron Wilkes)

Portions of the Pacific Yew are poisonous. The needles, berries and bark are generally considered to be toxic. But in the 1960s the bark of the Pacific Yew (and other species of yew) was found to contain taxol, which is effective in treating cancer of the lungs, breast and ovaries.  Given that discovery, a large number of Pacific Yews were harvested.

Final thoughts:

Alan Charlson, who is extremely knowledgeable on Pacific Yews and first pointed out the significance of the tree to the Maplewood community, has also created beautiful wooden bowls out of other fallen Pacific Yews.

A bowl created from a Pacific Yew. (Photo by Alan Charlson)

If anyone is interested, Alan has a few bowls available for sale at Zamarama Gallery, 2936 Colby, Everett. Alan’s bowls are labeled as being from Lake Ki Boats and Bowls.

In closing, I wanted to thank the Maplewood Presbyterian Church, as well as all the previous landowners who apparently appreciated the uniqueness and value of this special tree. I hope that through educational articles like this, the tree and many of our other valuable trees are safeguarded and cherished in the days ahead.

This article was researched and written by Byron Wilkes. Special thanks go to Alan and Millie Charlson, the Maplewood Presbyterian Church, Cathleen Draper and Dayle Zimmer for their assistance.

  1. Wow! You really did your research. I learned a lot of history and facts about yews! Well done!

    1. Yew are welcome, Matt. We endeavor to bring yew educational and enjoyable articles about the South Snohomish County area.

  2. So interesting to read about a local yew I hadn’t spotted in all my drive bys. I learned a lot about them at the Federation Forest exhibits on the way to Mt Rainier/ Chinook Pass. A great rest stop that also has history on the Naches Trail. Thank you.

  3. What a great article on a tree that we have all driven by a million times (or less). Its suspected age is amazing when you look at all the traffic and increased population over the years. Thank you to all who contributed to such an educational and most interesting article and to Maplewood Presbyterian Church for preserving this treasure.

  4. Such excellent coverage on history of our yew! Please come join us at Maplewood Presbyterian Church……the home of the famous Yew!

  5. Great article. Thanks for sharing the history of the Yew and our church, too. Come join us at church sometime. Also enjoy our reader board on 196th st .

  6. An even deeper dive into the history of the Yew tree ( excerpt below ):

    “But yew wood is perhaps best known as the material from which the medieval English longbows were made. Archers used these to devastating effect during the Hundred Years War. The Scots too used yew longbows and Robert the Bruce ordered bows to be made from the sacred yews at Ardchattan Priory in Argyll. These were then used during the Scots’ victorious battle at Bannockburn in 1314. The tree seems to have been rare in the Highlands for a long time. Even so Clan Fraser adopted a sprig of yew as their clan badge.

  7. Thanks for the additional deeper dive. Paradoxically its properties were discovered to be beneficial in cancer treatments and yet it was preferred due to its strength and flexibility in longbows in ancient times.

  8. Byron, thank you for another well researched and interesting article. You showcase what an amazing community we share. Thank you.

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