Taxus brevifoliaTaxaceae family

The Pacific Yew is small tree found primarily in the northwestern coastal forests of North America. The native peoples used its needles and twigs to brew teas for a wide range of ailments including cancer. Traditional healers were careful with the tree as it was well known how toxic the plant could be in the wrong hands. The seeds, although an edible berry for wildlife, act as a deadly killer for humans.

In the late 1960s, USDA botanists released studies about the Pacific Yew that stunned the world. A chemical found in its bark called paclitaxel stopped cancerous tumors from developing. This drug was tested on women struggling with both breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Even women in advanced stages went into remission.

The problem with the news was the source. The Pacific Yew is extremely slow growing and the seeds can take up to two years to germinate. To complicate matters, it took the bark from six 100 year-old trees to make enough medicine to treat a single patient. The scarcity of this plant drove the price of the medicine up to $17,000 per ounce. Something had to be done to save both the trees and the women who desperately needed this medicine.

One researcher found that combining the fungus that grows under the bark of the Pacific Yew with a common landscape species of yew results in paclitaxel as well. This discovery lowered the price of the anticancer medicine so more women could benefit. It also rescued the yew from the threat of extinction in the wild. Now the Pacific Yew grows safely in dense western forests to be enjoyed by the very women whose lives it has saved.