Yew trees helping to fight cancer

A National Trust gardener clipping the yew topiary at Lanhydrock, Cornwall

How can the poisonous Yew tree be made into a medicine that fights cancer?

Humans have long greeted the yew with a mixture of awe and fearful admiration. The leaves and seeds of the tree are notoriously lethal if eaten.

This may not sound like the raw material for a medicine. But the poisonous alkaloid found in the English yew tree - or to use its Latin name, Taxus baccata - contains some very useful chemicals.

The secret of Yew needles

These chemicals help to stop new cancer cells forming. Known as taxanes, they do this by disrupting the function of microtubules in our bodies, key players in the process of cell division.

This capacity is invaluable when cells are cancerous and doctors are trying to halt the growth of tumours.

These precious taxanes are most concentrated in the needles of the English yew between the months of May and October, when they are extracted from the clippings.

They're then converted into the chemotherapy drug Taxotere® (docetaxel). Taxotere has proven effective in combating lung and prostate cancer and advanced cases of breast cancer.

Plants as life-savers

We're collaborating with Friendship Estates, a family-run farm in Yorkshire that collects the cuttings nationwide and sends them to a laboratory in Essex, where the drug is manufactured.

With tens of thousands of miles of yew hedging stitched across the British Isles alone - and all requiring an annual haircut - Taxus baccata clippings have proved a marvellously renewable resource.

Yew trees are just one example of the life-saving qualities of plants.

A great proportion of the UK's medicines are plant-derived, highlighting just how important the Trust's  plant conservation programme really is.