Scientists believe the oldest tree in Europe is beginning to change sex.
The Fortingall yew, believed to be up to 5,000 years old, has started sprouting berries from one of its branches. This species of European yew (Taxus baccata) is separate-sexed, meaning only the females produce berries and only the males produce pollen. For hundreds of years, the tree has been classified as a male. This autumn, it started to display uniquely female characteristics.
The tree is found in a village churchyard in Fortingall in Perthshire, Scotland. Estimates vary, although experts believe it is somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 years old, making it the oldest living organism in Europe.
The tree was already alive before the Roman Empire reached Scotland around 80 CE. Local legend even claims that Pontius Pilate – the man believed to have ordered the crucifixion of Jesus – used to play in the tree’s shadow as a child.
Over the course of its long life, the tree has seen its fair share of wear and tear. It has achieved celebrity-like status among tourists, which has meant people have been taking clippings of the tree for hundreds of years. It’s also reported the tree has lost the center of its trunk and one of its sides.
Dr Max Coleman, of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, found the berries. Coleman and a team of scientists from the Royal Botanic Garden have taken some of the berries for analysis as part of a conservation project.
Speaking to the Press Association, Dr Coleman said: “Yew trees are male or female usually and it is pretty easy to spot which is which in autumn – males have tiny things that produce pollen and females have bright red berries from autumn into winter. This process may have happened before but we know the Fortingall yew has been classed as male for hundreds of years through records.
“The sex change isn’t the amazing bit in this case, it’s the fact it’s this particular tree.”
Sex changes in trees are by no means unheard of. Some trees, such as ash, can annually switch sex, producing male flowers one year and female fruits another.
“It’s a strategy for longevity,” Brian Muelaner, chair of the Ancient Tree Forum, said to The Guardian. “The Fortingall yew is fragmented and it may be so compartmentalised that part of it has become sexually ambiguous. We are all continuously learning about ancient trees – the ageing process of trees is a new science.”