Spindle (Euonymus europaea)
Spindle is a deciduous tree native to the UK and across Europe.
Common name: spindle
Scientific name: Euonymus europaea
UK provenance: native
Interesting fact: new spindle shoots are round, soon becoming square, and then round again as they expand and mature.
What does spindle look like?
Overview: mature trees grow to 9m and can live for more than 100 years. The bark and twigs are deep green, becoming darker with age, and have light brown, corky markings. Twigs are thin and straight.
Leaves: the leaves are shiny and slightly waxy, and have tiny sharp teeth along the edges. They turn a rich orange-red before falling in autumn.
Flowers: spindle is hermaphrodite, meaning each flower contains both male and female reproductive parts. Flowers have four petals and grow in clusters, in May and June, and are pollinated by insects.
Fruits: after pollination flowers develop into bright pink fruits with bright orange seeds, which resemble popcorn.
Look out for: the vivid pink fruits hiding bright orange seeds are unmistakeable.
Could be confused with: when in leaf it can be confused with dogwood (Cornus sanguinea).
Identified in winter by: the vivid pink fruits have bright orange seeds. Buds and twigs are angular and green.
Where to find spindle
It is native to much of Europe and can be found most commonly on the edges of forests and in hedges, scrub and hedgerows. It thrives best in chalky soils and is less common in Scotland.
Value to wildlife
The leaves are eaten by caterpillars of a number of moths, including the magpie, spindle ermine, scorched carpet and a variety of micro moths, as well as the holly blue butterfly. The leave also attract aphids and therefore their predators, including hoverflies, ladybirds and lacewings, as well as the house sparrow and other species of bird.
The flowers are a rich source of nectar and pollen for insects, particularly the St Mark’s fly.
Mythology and symbolism
Its botanical name, Euonymus is from the Greek, ‘eu’, meaning ‘good’ and ‘onama’, meaning ‘name’. This is said to have meant ‘lucky’. However, in some areas, it was also thought that if the spindle flowered early, an outbreak of the plague was likely.
How we use spindle
Spindle timber is creamy white, hard and dense. In the past it was used to make ‘spindles’ for spinning and holding wool (hence its name), as well as skewers, toothpicks, pegs and knitting needles.
The fruits were baked and powdered, and used to treat head lice, or mange in cattle. Both the leaves and fruit are toxic to humans - the berries have a laxative effect.
Today spindle timber is used to make high-quality charcoal, for artists. Cultivated forms of the tree are also grown in gardens for autumn colour.
Spindle may be affected by vine weevil, spider mite and a sap-feeding scale insect, which can cause dieback.