VIVID BERRIES AND LEAVES OF SPINDLE TREE PROVIDE FOOD FOR BIRDS AND VISUAL TREAT
With the approach of winter, spindle trees start to set the garden ablaze with the colour of their fruit and foliage. These shrubs, botanically known as euonymus, shake off their previously plain appearance, as the leaves burn red and purple. It is, however, the bright, jewel-like fruits that gleam in misty hedgerows. In spinning cascades of pink and orange, they create droplets of pure, bright colour amid the drab branches of other deciduous shrubs. These fruits persist like hot embers long after the foliage has fallen.
A feast for birds
The fat seed capsules are divided into four plump symmetrical lobes like miniature lanterns. These split to reveal glossy orange, rounded fruits that descend from their covers and spin in the breeze. As they ripen and become more prominent, the colourful seeds provide a valuable food source. Persisting well into winter, birds feast off them through the coldest months.
The birds are attracted by the orange fleshy seed coat, with its high-calorie nutrition. Inside the coat the true seeds remain intact after being eaten. Because of this, they are able to make their way through the birds’ digestive tracts to be deposited far away from the parent plant. This is an exquisitely balanced natural relationship. It supports native birds, helping them to survive through winter, while the spindle tree is able to propagate itself throughout the countryside.
The native Euonymus europaeus is such a veritable larder for birds that it will often be aggressively defended by robins making it part of their territory. For this reason,
it is known as ‘robins’ bread’ in some areas of the country.
The fruit is poisonous to humans, as are all parts of the plant. The toxic berries, however, have been put to good use. One traditional remedy for head lice involved applying the crushed berries to the scalp. Referencing the plant’s poisonous nature, the name ‘euonymus’ may originate from Euonyme. In Greek mythology she was the mother of vengeance-wreaking goddesses, the Furies.
The bright fruits are often initially seen dangling below a mantle of colourful leaves. Before it falls, the spindle tree’s foliage has one of the most impressive transformations in the British landscape. It turns from an unobtrusive dark green to a bright pinkish red with splashes of purple and hints of orange.
‘Red Cascade’, a cultivar of Euonymus europaeus, has the brightest and perhaps best colour for this time of year of any plant. A spreading shrub, it reaches 10ft (3m) across and 8ft (2.5m) high. The scalloped leaves gradually turn deep red, starting at the midrib and spreading to the leaf edges. Before the metamorphosis is complete, the leaves take on hues of pink, orange and purple. ‘Red Cascade’ bears plentiful fruit, the branches bowing under the weight.
A lesser-known characteristic of spindle trees is just as fascinating. A close look into the criss-crossing mass of leafless winter branches and the ‘winged’ outline of the straight stems becomes apparent. The branches develop four wings of corky bark, which if cut through have a cross-shaped silhouette. This feature is most prominent on Euonymus alatus, known as the winged spindle. Originating in Asia, it grows to 10ft (3m) in height, gradually spreading to a similar width. With age the bark of the main stems may become fissured, adding to the unusual and sculptural winter outline of this plant.
A limestone lover
The native European spindle, Euonymus europaeus, thrives on alkaline soils and is common on the chalk downs of southern England and on limestone hills and vales. Preferring full sun and freely draining soils, it is tolerant of winds and hard frosts. While it can be found in the shrubby lower canopy of ash, beech or yew woodland, the leaves will be at their most colourful in an open, sunny position. The one situation it will not tolerate is boggy, waterlogged ground. In its natural habitat a spindle tree may live for over 100 years.
Once a very common hedgerow plant, a campaign of grubbing out in the 1970s has left it a rarity in the wild. The spindle tree was thought to harbour crop diseases and pests, especially black bean aphid, which is a major pest of vegetable crops. There was little evidence that euonymus was a truly significant threat to farming.
Now the native plant is spreading in gardens, where it is an easy-to-grow, highly ornamental shrub.
Where to grow in the garden
Ideally, spindle trees are grown where there is an unobstructed view of them in winter. The centre of an island bed is a good location, where its summer foliage offers a useful green foil for tall flowering herbaceous perennials. A winter border with bright-stemmed winter dogwoods Cornus alba, Cornus sericea and Cornus sanguinea is another good site.
There are over 170 species of euonymus around the world but just a handful make suitable garden plants. Euonymus europaeus prefers alkaline soils, but will also grow well in neutral or slightly acidic ground as long as the soil is free-draining.
It is one of the easiest shrubs to maintain, growing in full sun, part shade, sheltered or exposed situations. It is a tough plant that can be used to provide a windbreak, particularly when grown with other wind-tolerant trees such as hawthorn and dog roses. With its abundant food, it is an excellent choice for a wildlife or nature garden.
‘Red Cascade’ is one of the best cultivars of E. europaeus for the garden. Its colour and fruit has earned it an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.
Euonymus planipes is another good spindle tree for the garden. Displaying some of the most dramatic winter colour, it grows to 10ft (3m) high. With pinnate leaves reminiscent of an ash tree, it has a vase-like shape that spreads upwards and outwards from a narrow base.
Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’ is an ideal shrub for less spacious gardens, reaching only 3½ft (1m) in height. With the same distinctive winged wood as the larger E. alatus, it makes an attractive, smaller sculptural winter plant.
Spindle trees need little work. They form a naturally balanced and well branching framework. Little pruning is required, removing only dead, diseased or crossing and rubbing branches, or branches that are growing in an awkward place. Any pruning is done in late winter or early spring before weeding around the base. The tree will then benefit from a mulch of well-rotted garden compost.
The spindle tree is a fascinating plant, valued for its unique aesthetic qualities, wildlife-friendly properties and its many practical uses. It deserves a home in British gardens where the bright fruits and colouring leaves welcome the changing of the seasons and feed hungry birds.
Words: Melissa Mabbit Photography: Alamy