Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, this week I am definitely cheating. I did deliberately plant some spindle in the native hedge in the garden, and this year it has flowered and set seed with some vigour, so I decided that I wanted to share it with you. Because, well, orange seeds and cerise seed pods are so extravagant that they look almost tropical against the dark twigs and yew foliage of the rest of the garden. And because I don’t know about you, but I could do with a burst of carnival colour to lift the ennui that seems to have settled about my head like a damp woollen blanket.
Spindle is a native plant which was cultivated in the past to provide hard, resilient wood for objects such as knitting needles, bird cages, pipes and, unsurprisingly, spindles for spinning. Nowadays it is used to provide high quality charcoal for artists and is also used by gardeners for its autumn seed pods and seeds, and for its foliage. The flowers are rather small, but are good sources of nectar and pollen – the Woodland Trust website mentions that they are particularly popular with St Marks Fly, a rather dangly insect that hovers over the heads of walkers on Hampstead Heath in great clouds for a few days every year. St Mark’s Day is on 25th April, which should also be peak blooming season for the spindle. We always think of bees when people mention pollinators, but flies do a lot more pollinating than they’re given credit for. The flowers of spindle are hermaphrodite, which means that they are capable of self-pollinating if there aren’t any insects about. However it happens, the result of the pollination is the pink, four-compartmented seed capsules in the photo above.
Those orange seeds are, however, poisonous (causing symptoms similar to those of meningitis), and so is the wood. On the Poison Garden website John Robertson mentions that there are no documented cases of death through ingestion, but that there has been one case of problems arising through working with the wood, so I would suggest that care is taken not to inhale the sawdust. The seeds are said to have a ‘loathsome smell and bitter taste’ which I imagine would put most humans off but not, apparently, goats (according to the sixteenth century botanist and herbalist John Gerard). In some parts of Africa the sap from spindle was used as an arrow poison.
Because of its poisonous nature, the plant has largely been used in tiny doses as a purgative, and a decoction, with vinegar, has been used to treat mange in goats and cattle, and head lice in humans. A yellow dye can be produced from the seeds, though A Modern Herbal describes the effects as ‘fugitive’.
One other problem that I’ve noticed, and which John Robertson also mentions, is that spindle is a positive aphid magnet. Maybe it’s the soft, toothsome green leaves that do it. At any rate, it will look splendid at the beginning of April and will be eaten down to a stub by mid May if I don’t pay attention. I suspect that these aphids then spread out in search of other things to eat. Companion planting is probably the answer. However,if not completely defoliated by insects, spindle can become a reasonably-sized shrub, as in the photo below.
Spindle has a whole host of negative folklore surrounding it. The genus name Euonymus comes from Euonyme, the mother of the Furies, after whom the plant was named due to its irritant properties (though I’d have thought that if you came to the attention of the mother of the Furies it would be rather more serious than mere irritation). It was said that if spindle flowered early, it signified an outbreak of the plague. Because it was used for toothpicks and also for ox-goads, it has an alternative English name of prickwood. To cap it all, the plant can be used as an ingredient in gunpowder. In fact, you might think that spindle is a thoroughly bad lot.
But then, I turn to ‘The Language of Flowers With Illustrative Poetry’ written by one Forget-Me-Not in 1835 and edited by one Mr Frederick Shoberl. In it, the author reflects that if you give someone a nice big bunch of spindle twigs (hopefully with intact rose-pink seedcases and vivid orange seeds), the message that the happy recipient should take from this gift is that ‘Your Charms are Engraven on My Heart.’ And very nice too! Provided, I imagine, that as you are composing a thank you letter to be written on your lavender-scented writing paper, you don’t mistake one of the fallen seeds for an orange Tic-Tac, at which point a visit to A&E is strongly recommended.
Photo One: (spindle flowers) – By AnemoneProjectors (Flickr: Spindle (Euonymus europaeus)) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Two: (St. Mark’s Fly) – https://www.flickr.com/photos/drinkermoth/8421474862
Photo Three: (Spindle Tree) – By Wzwz – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21908282
All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!