We’ve had a couple of frosty nights and many deciduous trees and shrubs are showing their autumn colours.
One of the most beautiful autumn shrubs is the Spindle, Euonymous europaeus, which has pink berries and leaves that change colour from green to a similar shade of pink before they fall. At the same time the berries split open to reveal orange seeds.
A friend e-mailed me a picture of Spindle this morning and asked me what it was, convinced that such a pretty plant must be an exotic species. But Spindle is a British native, found in hedges, scrub and open woodland mostly in the southern parts of the British Isles (see map). It is often planted, as in Earlham Cemetery in Norwich, where I photographed it yesterday. It particularly likes alkaline soils over chalk and limestone.
Earlier in the year Spindle is easy to miss and its flowers are subtle rather than spectacular, tiny greenish-yellow and borne in clusters in late spring. The flowers are attractive to many insects, including the St. Mark’s Fly, Bibio marci, a black fly that appears in swarms at the end of April. Black, with dangling legs, the fly looks a bit sinister but is entirely harmless. (See a larger than life photo of a St. Mark’s Fly on Spindle flowers here.)
Spindle is a member of the family Celastraceae, whose members are mainly tropical.
Spindle makes an attractive, large garden shrub for sunny or partly shaded sites, provided the soil is well-drained and not acidic. It will cope with heavy soils if they are well drained and it grows to an eventual of about 2.5 metres in height and spread. It is possible to grow Spindle from seed but the seeds need a period of warmth followed by cold to germinate. There is a cultivated variety called “Red Cascade“.
However, there are two reasons why you might not want to grow a Spindle in your garden.
Firstly, all parts of the Spindle are poisonous. The plant contain toxic glycosides. Symptoms of poisoning occur eight to 16 hours after eating and include vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhoea. In severe cases there may be drowsiness, convulsions and loss of consciousness. (Source: M. R. Cooper and A. W. Johnson (1988): “Poisonous Plants & Fungi – An illustrated guide”, HMSO, London). The berries are the most likely part of the plant to be eaten, though all parts of the plant have a “loathsome smell and bitter taste” which will put most people off trying.
Secondly, growers of Broad Beans should know that Spindle is one of the winter hosts of the Black Bean Aphid, Aphis fabae. The aphids overwinter as eggs and hatch in spring and subsequent generations live on the tops of Broad Bean plants, as well as on other crops and wild plants. (It is a good idea to remove the tops of broad Bean plants in late spring so that the aphids are unable to damage the plant. The tops can be steamed as a side vegetable.)
Spindle wood is fine grained and very hard. It has been used to make spindles, skewers, knitting needles and fine quality artists’ charcoal. (Thanks to the excellent blog Days On The Claise I’ve discovered that in French Spindle is called le fusain and a charcoal sketch is a dessin au fusain.) The Plants For A Future website lists other uses for the plant, including the extraction a volatile oil used in soap making from the whole plant and a bright yellow dye from the fruit and seed.