After more than 3 000 years, British tree is changing its sex

ANCIENT ICON: Britain’s oldest tree, the Fortingall Yew, stands next to a church in Perthshire, Scotland
ANCIENT ICON: Britain’s oldest tree, the Fortingall Yew, stands next to a church in Perthshire, Scotland

BRITAIN’S oldest tree appears to be undergoing a sex change.

The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, which estimates suggest is between 3 000 and 5 000 years old, is regarded as a male tree because of the fact it produces pollen – unlike female yews, which produce distinctive seed-bearing red berries.

But botanists have spoken of their surprise after finding three red berries on a branch of the yew this year – in signs at least part of the male tree is becoming female.

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’s Dr Max Coleman, who spotted the berries, said: “Yews are normally either male or female and in autumn and winter sexing yews is generally easy.

“Males have small spherical structures that release clouds of pollen when they mature. Females hold bright red berries from autumn into winter,” he said.

“It was, therefore, quite a surprise to me to find a group of three ripe red berries on the Fortingall Yew this October when the rest of the tree was clearly male.”

Coleman said while it may seem “odd”, it was not unheard of for yews – and other conifers that have different sexes – to switch sex.

He said: “Normally this switch occurs on part of the crown rather than the entire tree changing sex.

“In the Fortingall Yew it seems that one small branch in the outer part of the crown has switched and now behaves as female.”

He said the three seeds had been collected and would be included in a major project to “conserve the genetic diversity of yew trees” by planting them out at the Botanic Garden.

Coleman said sadly the tree was surrounded by a small enclosure to keep souvenir hunters at bay.

–Emily Gosden/ The Telegraph

 

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