Spindle

Spindle
Euonymus europaeus

Reader's Digest logo

Spindle belongs to the genus Euonymus and is a member of the Spindle family (Celastraceae).

Spindle (Euonymus europaeus) is a deciduous tree growing to 6m and flowering May to June.

Lifespan: may live for well over 100 years.

 

Characteristics

Bark is smooth and grey, developing a pink-grey hue and fissuring with age. Twigs are green and four-angled. Leaves are opposite, oval, finely toothed with a pointed tip (3–13cm).

Spindle is hermaphrodite; it has ‘perfect’ flowers with both sexes represented in one flower. Flowers have four petals and four alternate stamens, white-green, three to ten together in stalked clusters. Fruits are a four-lobed pink capsule; each lobe contains an orange seed. Spindle is insect pollinated.

Spindle tree
Spindle leaves

Distribution

Native in the UK and across Europe.

Found in woodlands and at the woodland edge, in scrub and hedgerows particularly on calcareous soils in England, Wales and Ireland. Rare in Scotland.

Spindle can be found occupying the shrub layer of ash, beech or yew woodland on calcareous soils.

A much-loved cultivated variety commonly planted in gardens for its autumnal show of bright pink fruits and red foliage.

Human value

Spindle timber is creamy white, hard and very dense; ideal for making small delicate items.

In the past it was used to make ‘spindles’ for spinning and holding wool. Its stems can be used to make fine-pointed instruments such as knitting needles, skewers or toothpicks.

The fruits were baked and powdered and used to treat cattle for mange.

Today it is used to make high-quality artists’ charcoal.

Both the leaves and fruit are toxic to humans.

Spindle fruits
Spindle berry

Wildlife value

The flowers of spindle are rich in nectar and an important food source for hoverflies, bees and other insects. They are pollinated by St Mark’s fly; so named as the adults emerge around St Mark’s day (25 April).

It is an aphid rich tree so a favoured foraging ground for blue tits, great tits, robins and ladybirds.

The magpie moth, spindle ermine, the scorched carpet moth and a number of micro moths all feed on spindle. The holly blue butterfly is also known to feed on spindle.

Management

Spindle is a hardy, light-loving species able to tolerate moderate shade, exposure and frost. It thrives best on neutral to calcareous well-drained to moist soils. It cannot tolerate waterlogged soils.

Seeds ripen in October and can be collected then. Seeds must be extracted carefully from the fruit flesh. Pre-treatment involves warming seeds for 8–12 weeks then cold treatment for 8–16 weeks before germination can begin. Soft and hardwood cuttings can also be taken.

May be affected by vine weevils, spider mites and a sap-feeding scale insect which can cause dieback. Spindle is also thought to be a winter refuge for black aphids which can plague vegetable crops; particularly broad beans.

Spindle

Illustrations © Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.
Photographs © Forestry Commission