Val explains why the ornamental and wildlife-friendly spindle tree, or Euonymus, delights her in autumn
THERE’S one plant that really sets me alight in autumn and that’s the spindle tree, or Euonymus, because I love the vivid fruits. Each one forms a carousel of bright pink with dangling orange seeds that seem to lean outwards like fairground swings in full pelt. I can still remember the first time I ever saw one as a teenager, for I came from the city. I stood and stared at the spectacle, open-mouthed.
I have three of these plants at Spring Cottage and the foliage colours up well, although they do drop their leaves early. In winter, red scrolled buds develop so it’s a lovely thing throughout the year. The most handsome one I grow is Euonymus planipes, an upright Asian spindle with a vase-like habit. The leaves colour up to olive-green in September, but there is another called ‘Sancho’ that produces damson foliage in autumn.
We have our own native form in our hedgerows and woods, E. europeaus, and this can live for 100 years-plus. Some of these veteran trees are almost like landmarks. The selected garden form, ‘Red Cascade’, bears lots of fruits and you could also grow E. alatus. This has corky wings on the bark that stand out in winter light.
The straight twigs were used as spindles for spinning, holding wool, skewers, toothpicks, pegs and knitting needles. The fruits were baked and powdered and used to treat head lice, or mange in cattle. It’s a case of don’t try this at home though, for the purgative leaves and fruit are toxic to humans. They’ve been known to kill sheep.
The leaves are eaten by some moth caterpillars, including the magpie, spindle ermine, scorched carpet and a variety of micro moths, as well as the holly blue butterfly. The small, yellowgreen flowers are full of pollen and nectar In May. Green flowers attract flies and often have a musty smell.
The fruits are highly nutritious for birdlife and robins adore them, fighting to keep other birds away from their prized bush. Male robins are very aggressive and it’s said that 10 per cent of older robins die defending their territory. You don’t have to wait until spring to hear the high-pitched song of robins, either. They’re very territorial and sing throughout winter as well, although not nearly as melodically. In full breeding mode their musical song sounds almost flute-like and they show themselves off as they sing.
The name ‘robin’ is relatively modern: before the 15th century the bird was commonly known as the redbreast, ruddock or robinet.
“The fruits are highly nutritious for birdlife”
Robins sing their high-pitched song throughout winter
Euonymus alatus has corky ‘wings’ on its bark that stand out in winter light
Euonymus planipes is an upright Asian spindle with a vase-like habit