Remember how Snow White got sick when she pricked her finger on a spindle? Well, like many fairy tales this one may have some basis in fact.
The spindle tree gets its name because its wood is hard and dense and can be trimmed to a sharp point. So was used to make spindles to spin wool as well as similar items such as toothpicks, knitting needles and butcher’s skewers (another name for it is, in fact, ‘skewer tree’.
But though its fruits are pretty, they are also poisonous; they have a violent laxative effect and can cause liver and kidney failure, and even death. On the other hand, as with so many toxic plants, parts of it have been used medically, to boost appetite and battle jaundice for example.
The diarist John Evelyn noted that the berries were ‘baked, powdered and sprinkled on the heads of small boys to kill their nits and lice’. The leaves so treated were until quite recently scattered on the floors of country cottages to combat vermin. Today the wood makes top quality artist’s charcoal.
Spindle is actually a variety of the popular garden shrub euonymous. Oddly enough, this comes from the Greek ‘eu’ meaning ‘good’ or ‘lucky’; not so lucky was the old belief that if it flowered early plague would soon follow.
Though possibly the name derived from Euonyme, the mother of the Furies, which may be a reference to its poisonous properties.
It flourishes on the chalky soils found here in the South and its minute, greenish-yellow flowers, pollinated by St Mark’s fly, so called because this usually emerged around St Mark’s Day, April 25.
More spectacularly, in autumn as its leaves turn red, the spindle tree breaks out in a stunning rash of pink fruits which open to reveal bright orange seeds.
An indicator of ancient woodland and hedgerows, as often here on the Island, this seasonal display has lately found favour among gardeners and park managers.
It is worth cultivating just for its benefits for wildlife. The flowers are a rich source of nectar and the leaves are devoured by moths as well as holly blue butterflies, ladybirds and lacewings. It is also enjoyed by house sparrows and starlings.
Unfortunately it can be affected by vine weevils and a sap-feeding insect which may produce dieback.