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In Da Woods

by Melanie B. Fullman, US Forest Service
Here’s Looking at Yew

A gentleman from Bessemer recently called to ask what I knew about the increasing scarcity of “ground hemlock”? He said he frequently walks along the Black River near Bessemer and used to see lots of ground hemlock, even avoiding it wherever possible because “the 6-8’ ground branches impeded walking”. He stated it is definitely NOT a tree, more shrub-like.
I was confused. Ground hemlock??? So I consulted the Oracle - Forest Botanist Sue Trull, who quickly surmised he was referring to Canada yew (Taxus Canadensis).

Yew There?
 Canada yew is a low, straggling, evergreen shrub typically 3-6' tall with spreading limbs that be twice as wide as the overall height. Short, flat needles are dark green above, pale green below, becoming a reddish-brown in winter. The brown bark is thin and scaly.
The shrub lives in moist, mixed woods from Newfoundland to southeastern Manitoba and south through the northeastern and central US, including the North Woods. It thrives in swampy forests, ravines, riverbanks, and on lake shores. It some places it is simply called "yew"; in other parts, American yew or ground-hemlock.

Like other yews, it is highly shade-tolerant, with clumps of the plants often forming a fairly continuous, dense ground cover. Interestingly, the creation of a dense yew covering appears to prevent the establishment of balsam fir. Canada yew does not live at all in open, well-light communities like aspen stands. It is also highly intolerant of disturbance, readily extirpated by logging or fire. Regeneration by seed is primarily from the droppings of birds perched in older forests.

Highly preferred by moose and white-tailed deer, it can be easily eaten out of an area. Its widespread decline in Wisconsin and the UP, including the Bessemer area, is probably due to excessive deer browsing.

Canada yew berries are small, fleshy, and bright red. While that’s makes an easy meal for several species of birds – namely grouse, cedar waxwings, and robins – the attractiveness of the fruits is generally bad news for parents. Most parts of the yew are poisonous to humans, horses, and cattle. Sensitivity to the toxin varies by age, weight, physical condition, and individual susceptibility. Children are most vulnerable because of their curiosity and small size. Toxicity can also vary in a particular plant, by season, the plant parts, and its stage of growth.

In an odd twist of nature, this toxin that can sicken people unintentionally can also save lives. In 1960, the USDA and National Cancer Institute started testing plants for chemicals that might have the potential to fight cancer. A compound called paclitaxel was identified as an anti-cancer chemical in the bark of Pacific yew shrubs. Unfortunately, the demand for the chemical was greater than the supply of Pacific yew. And it has proven quite difficult to produce by synthetic means.

Enter the Canada yew, a close relative of, and much more abundant species than the Pacific. Plus, the critical taxane compound can be obtained from new shoots of Canada yew branches on a 5-year cycle, whereas it must be stripped from the bark of the Pacific variety, which kills the plant. Given the high levels of taxanes in Canada yew, this species is poised to become one of the most valuable natural sources of taxane for the pharmaceutical industry.

No More Taxus? (sorry, couldn’t resist)
Not surprisingly, commercial yew harvest has increased dramatically in Canada and the US in the last 20 years. Both the European Union and US Food and Drug Agency require that all plants used for drug production be harvested in a sustainable manner. An audit of some harvesters in Ontario concluded they were using sustainable harvest practices, but the regulations are difficult to enforce.
Given its susceptibility to disturbance and browse pressure, it will be critical to ensure that wild Canada yew populations remain healthy, for the sake of the forest and us!

Like I always say, hoping to see YEW in the woods.
 [OK, you can stop groaning now at the awful puns!  J ]


Polar Bear Cookbook

Thank you to everyone who submitted recipes for the Polar Bear Hockey Cookbook. The cookbooks are now available. The cost for the cookbooks are $10.00 so make sure to grab one for yourself and maybe one or two as a gift. They can be purchased at the Pat O'Donnel Civic Center concession stand or by contacting Kerry Roehm or Micki Sorensen.


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