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Berry strange: UK's oldest tree undergoing 'sex change'

Published 02/11/2015

Experts at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh spotted three berries on a high branch of the tree and have now taken them for analysis as part of a conservation project
Experts at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh spotted three berries on a high branch of the tree and have now taken them for analysis as part of a conservation project

The UK's oldest tree, thought to be up to 5,000-years-old, is undergoing a "sex change".

Records have always noted the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire as a male tree but it has recently started sprouting berries - something only female yew trees do.

Experts at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh spotted three berries on a high branch of the tree, located in the churchyard of the village of Fortingall, Perthshire, and have now taken them for analysis as part of a conservation project.

Dr Max Coleman, of the Royal Botanic Garden, said yew trees have been known to change sex before but discovering the process on "such a special tree is what makes this a special story".

The Fortingall Yew is thought be between 3,000 and 5,000-years-old, and is one of the oldest living organisms in Europe.

It has survived the ravages of time and the attention of eager tourists, who in previous centuries took clippings from it as a souvenir.

The trunk changed shape many years ago and has lost its centre and one side, and the tree is now protected by a small wall.

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 f emales 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.

"It's hard to say how rare it is but conifers that have separate sexes, have been observed to switch sex and it's not really fully understood.

"The sex change isn't the amazing bit in this case, it's the fact it's this particular tree.

"Finding female berries on this special tree is what makes it such a special story."

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