The National Cancer Institute immediately placed an order with the Forest Service for dried Pacific yew bark, which until 1987 had no commercial value and was commonly burned in slash piles after logging.
The yew tree is thin-skinned, yielding only about five pounds of bark per tree, according to Hartzell. The 1991 harvest amounted to about 825,000 pounds of bark, or 165,000 trees. That's enough to treat a little more than 12,000 cancer patients. But nearly 1 million people die of cancer each year, Hartzell points out, and if taxol is as promising as some doctors believe the pressure on the Pacific yew forests could be tremendous.
The taxol issue aside, The Yew Tree is a fascinating in-depth botanical study of a single tree, its natural history, and its interaction with humans down through the centuries. It even includes chapters on cultivating yews and poetic images associated with yews, and appendice listings of all the known yew species and associated cultivars.
Until recently, Hartzell points out, the yew was considered a "trash tree" by Northwest foresters and treated accordingly. Now that taxol has reversed its reputation the lesson of the yew tree is clear. There are no unimportant species, only undiscovered potential.
reviewed by Michael Hofferber
Copyright © 1992. All rights reserved.
A million treatments of taxol would require 2,000 kilograms of taxol or 60,000,000 pounds of Pacific yew or the equivalent of 12,000,000 yew trees ten inches or larger in diameter. There is no way bark can be the answers.
There are less than 4 million yew trees still standing, Hartzell estimates, enough to cure only one-third of the terminal cancer cases in a single year.
Chances for wild yew's survival are tenuous at best. The Pacific yew is the last sizeable population of native yews left on earth, and now we have discovered in it the gift of a powerful anti-cancer compound. It is a sad commentary on our times that the only feasible way we have yet devised to acquire this gift is to kill mature trees for their five pounds of bark.
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