After 5,000 years, Britain's Fortingall Yew is turning female

Local legend has it that Pontius Pilate was born in the shade of the yew and later played beneath its branches as a child.
By Brooks Hays   |   Nov. 2, 2015 at 12:12 PM

FORTINGALL, Scotland, Nov. 2 (UPI) -- After a few millennia as a male, the oldest tree in Britain is discovering life as a female. The top branches of Scotland's Fortingall Yew have begun sprouting berries.

Some estimates put the age of the tree between 1,500 and 3,000 years old. Others suggest the tree is nearly 5,000 years old. Whatever its actual age, the yew is recognized as one of the (if not the) oldest trees in Europe.

For as long humans have been observing the tree, it has been putting out pollen -- proof of its maleness. But earlier this fall, a botanist with the Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh noticed a few bright red berries hanging from an upper branch. Their appearance suggests the ancient tree is taking on female characteristics and may be in the midst of a sex change.

"[It was] quite a surprise to me to find a group of three ripe red berries on the Fortingall Yew when the rest of the tree was clearly male," botanist Max Coleman wrote in a blog update. "Odd as it may seem, yews, and many other conifers that have separate sexes, have been observed to switch sex."

"Normally this switch occurs on part of the crown rather than the entire tree changing sex," Coleman added. "In the Fortingall Yew it seems that one small branch in the outer part of the crown has switched and now behaves as female."

The famed tree, which boasts a trunk girth of 52 feet, is found in an ancient churchyard in Fortingall, a small village in Perthshire, Scotland. It is protected by a stone wall and surrounded by significant archaeological sites.

Nearby is Carn na Marbh, literally meaning "mound" or "cairn of the dead." It was a Bronze Age burial site used by local Scots in the 14th century to bury victims of the plague. Fortingall is thought to have been the cultural center of an Iron Age cult, with the tree at its center. Later, the site was christened by the Romans.

Local legend has it that Pontius Pilate was born in the shade of the yew and later played beneath its branches as a child.

Conservationists with the Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh have collected seeds from the Fortingall Yew -- along with other significant and wild yews -- and planted them as part of a hedge, an effort to preserve the genetic diversity of species. Yews are threatened by felling and disease.

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