Pacific yew as floors, taxol, and notes
Daniel B. Wheeler
dwheeler at teleport.com
Thu Jun 7 10:53:48 EST 2001
The following is from a larger article on The Natural Legacy of Lewis
and Clark, and was published in The Oregonian as a Special Report on
May 24, 2001 by Jolene Krawczak with photos by Joan Carlin
Sally Claggett of Washington treasures her floors made of yew.
Lewis and Clark would have been proud to know that one of their plant
discoveries - the same tree used as the center beam for Fort Clatsop -
would provide one of the most significant cancer-fighting drugs more
than a century later.
One hundred and fifty years after the explorers saw the Pacific yew
as they crossed the Lolo Trail between Montana and Idaho, scientists
discovered the tree's bark contained taxol - a break-through treatment
for ovarian, breast and other cancers.
Taxol is now synthesized, but for years it could be obtained only by
stripping the life-saving bark from yes, killing the trees. In 1991,
the National cancer Institute contrqacted for 60,000 pounds of dried
bark for its taxol, the equivalent of 12,000 trees.
Which is how botanist Sally Claggett got her floor.
The tongue-and-groove wood floors in Sally and John Claggett'\s
kitchen, living and dining rooms in their White Salmon, Wash., home
are yew. They bought the salvaged yew after the bark had been stripped
On her hands and knees, Sally Claggett, a botanist for the Mount
Adams Ranger District, can read the story of the forest in her unusual
"This imperfection shows where a limb was lopped off. Here is where a
tree was likely hit." And the rings on one plank show "that tree was
700 to 800 years old," she says. "Because the tree is so very
slow-growing, you get those tight rings."
Claggett appreciates the complexities beneath her family's feet. She
knows the decimation that Northwest forests suffered to create taxol,
and she knows that thousands of lives were saved in the process.
"It's so special to have that connection," she says. "I never take
the floors for granted."
COMMENT BY POSTER: I have been told by Ralph Wilkinson (co-author of
Trees to Know in Oregon) that Native Americans often planted yew in
open areas near streams where they did a lot of hunting. This provided
later generations access to some of the best bow wood available.
Yew wood is very flexible and strong. I have seen a small yew less
than 4 feet high supporting a 2-3 foot diameter trunk in blow-down
Clearcutting and slash burning have decreased the range of Pacific
yew (Taxus brevifolia) somewhat, but the largest single threat to the
tree has been collection of bark and twigs for taxol production.
Ironically, a commonly-available mushroom in many supermarkets
(enokitake, or Flammulina velutipes) has been shown to produce better
results with breast cancer and some other cancer types than taxol has.
OTOH, enokitake is not "patentable" and offers no dramatic increase in
revenues to pharmacies or physicians. Enokitake is relatively cheap
and easy to cultivate, as well as readily available in many grocery
stores across the US.
Daniel B. Wheeler
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