It would be more precise to say that I have a spindle bush – or even partial hedge at the front of the garden. This shrub leans over the front wall and jostles for position with a variegated privet.
Its botanical name, Euonymus is from the Greek, ‘eu’, meaning ‘good’ and ‘onama’, meaning ‘name’. This is said to have meant ‘lucky’. Though in some areas, it was also thought that if the spindle flowered early, an outbreak of the plague was likely.
European spindle can eventually grow 20 feet wide tall and wide, though it is often seen smaller. They grow well in chalky soils and will tolerate drought as well as shade, so a good all rounder.
They are also great for wildlife because of their dense growth habit and for the berries which birds love. and once ripe the fruits seldom stay for long.
Spindle timber is creamy white, hard and dense and was once used to make ‘spindles’ for spinning and holding wool (hence its name), as well as skewers, toothpicks, pegs and knitting needles.
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.
In the spring its white flowers in spring are small and insignificant but are a rich source of nectar and pollen for insects.
The leaves are a nondescript oval shape and about two to three inches long, and a source of food for various moth and butterfly caterpillars. The leaves also attract aphids and therefore their predators, including hoverflies, ladybirds and lacewings, as well as the house sparrow and other species of bird.
The fruit pod consists of four sections that split open to reveal its vivid pink pod lining and bright orange fruits, earning spindle trees the alternative names ‘hearts-a-bustin’ and ‘strawberry bush’. In autumn its foliage is responsible for another alternative name: ‘burning bush’.
fruits were baked and powdered, and used to treat head lice, or mange in cattle. Both the leaves and fruit are toxic to humans – though large quantities would need to be consumed to cause a serious threat to health.
The berries have a laxative effect and are also said to have the power to induce sleep/coma – perhaps why it has another country name – fairy berries, though as a child I always thought that was due to its dainty, colourful pods that hung from bare branches like the discarded part frocks of so many fairy revellers.
It has certainly always a favourite with me from those early years when I would walk the fields and hedgerows with my father (a shepherd in those days). Against the backdrop of bare branches their fruits with almost surreal colouring seldom failed to lift the spirits.
Certainly seeing it fruiting on the front wall today, when so many things are dying back after three sharp frosts in a row, makes me feel happy,