Euonymous europaeus. (Spindle Tree)
The European spindle is a hugely adaptable tree. Growing throughout Europe it can be found from Ireland and parts of Scandinavia in the north, to Spain in the south and as far east as Lithuania. Its range also includes some of Asia Minor up to the Caucasus. Succeeding in most soils and aspects it prefers a well-drained loamy soil and enjoys light shade. It naturally grows at woodland edges so is at home in our hedgerows and copses.
An attractive, very hardy, small deciduous tree it rarely reaches more than 20 feet high and more often seen around 10 feet at most. Its beauty is most evident in Autumn when wonderful crimson, purple and rich red leaves blaze in seasonal sunlight. Earlier, in Spring, while the smooth, pointed, short stalked leaves are a still a mid green; it sports small, almost insignificant, white/yellow – greenish tinged flowers. Each plant is distinctly male or female so not all spindle flowers produce the strange, magnificent rich deep coral pink, four lobed capsular fruit with contrasting vibrant vermillion/orange seeds. These exotic, richly coloured seeds, on the female plants, often hang on into Winter after the leaves have gone.
As well as its ornamental attributes throughout history it has proved to be useful in several practical ways. Staying with the fruit, the seeds produce a yellow dye and the pods a good red. But In the weaving world of our forbears the dyeing properties were probably second in importance to the value of the timber in making spindles for spinning wool.
This is where our common name for Euonymous euopaeus, the ‘ spindle tree’, comes from. With a fine grain, easy to split, and the readiness with which the wood can be worked into a fine point, also led it to be fashioned into toothpicks, knitting needles, arrows and skewers.
Apparently it also made, and still does, the finest artist charcoal, although Willow charcoal seems to be the most commonly produced nowadays.
Parts of the plant have been used medicinally, it is laxative and purgative although the fruits are generally described as being highly poisonous, not to birds though who seem to be most prolific spreaders of spindle tree seed!
The fresh leaves, fruit and seeds, made into a lotion, have been used externally to treat lice, ticks and other parasites in humans, horses and cattle.
A volatile oil extracted from the plant can be used in the production of soap, and the roots yield a latex rubber used in the making of plastics.
The richness in colour of its leaves and unusual fruit make it difficult to beat Euonymous europaeus for Autumn interest. It makes for a spectacular garden subject, where it is normally kept as a large shrub, especially the named cultivar ‘red cascade’ with its very rich colouring. Better fruit displays are produced from groups of shrubs where pollination can be encouraged with other cultivars such as ‘intermedius’. Although easily propagated from cuttings, some interesting variation can be gained by growing from the resulting seed.