Thursday, February 23, 2012
The Preacher’s Corner
Dr. Ingraham’s yew tree is local treasure
I am fascinated by the yew tree in Hill Crest Cemetery. It is located near the southernmost gate, at the western edge, where Center Street passes by. It looks like a fir tree, except the gnarled, craggy trunk and “bushier” foliage set it apart from the evergreens we are used to in America.
The tree — extremely rare in Mississippi — was planted beside the grave of the Rev. Joseph Holt Ingraham (1809-1860), who was rector of Christ Church here, and a noted author in his day.
Yew trees come from England, and are traditionally planted in country churchyards, to shade and protect the grave markers. One of Dr. Ingraham’s admirers brought the yew back from a visit to England and planted it on the minister’s grave. It was a lovely gesture that has added unique beauty to Hill Crest for many years.
Reading a little guidebook on English churchyards, I learned some additional facts about yew trees. The botanical name is Taxxus baccata, and they grow most prolifically in the south of England where the soil is chalky and contains limestone. In that part of England it is the only evergreen species that is naturally found.
Medieval longbows and staves were said to have been made of yew wood, for the yew’s incredibly slow rate of growth gives it an elasticity which makes it suitable for such hardware of archery and war.
Before Christianity, pagans in Britain were said to have worshiped the yew as sacred. This fact has led some to believe that Christian missionaries preached where groves of yews stood, so that the yews in some churchyards may have been there before the churches themselves.
The yew lives to a fantastic old age — some English churches claim to have yews that are 800 years old. The trees can be severely pruned, and will flourish again luxuriantly.
Because of this, the tree has come to be a symbol of immortality — hence its use in cemeteries. Its branches were used in Palm Sunday and Easter processions as a substitute for the palm branches of the gospel stories.
Often its branches were laid on the coffin and then spread over the newly-filled grave. But yew foliage was never used inside the house, as, indoors, it was considered a harbinger of death.
Interesting traditions have grown up around some of these yew trees and their English churchyards. At Wroughton in Wiltshire, it is said that a ghost may be raised by walking three times around the churchyard yew and pushing a pin into its trunk.
There are ninety-nine yew trees at Painswick in Gloucestershire, which are world famous. They were planted at the end of the 18th century, and legend insists that it is impossible to grow 100.
The yew tree in Holly Springs has developed fame for another reason. It has recently been given protected status due to its value to the school of pharmacology at the University of Mississippi, where scrapings from its bark have been discovered to contain valuable chemicals useful in the treatment of cancer.
It depends on the sex (yes, my friend Ed Croome of Oxford assures me that trees have sexes) of the tree, and apparently ours is the right sex — I do not know how to tell a male from a female yew tree.
But the Hill Crest yew tree is extremely rare, and true to its reputation as a symbol of immortality, it is bringing new life to victims of cancer.
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