A range of flowers in Colins Paddock

Map of the Down

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Wild flowers at Magog Down prev  :  next

Spindle - Euonymus europaeus

spindlespindle_180Visiting the down last autumn I was struck by the beauty of the many spindle bushes planted along the edges of the woodland strips. At that time they were at their most handsome, their three-lobed pink berries (of which they carried a prolific crop) having split back to reveal the bright orange seeds within - "The fruit", said Tennyson, "which in our winter woodlands looks like a flower".

The name 'spindle' was first used by the 16th century herbalist William Turner. He had heard it called "spilboone" in Holland where its hard wood was used to make the spindles used in spinning. The older English names such as "prickwood" indicate other uses, such as the manufacture of toothpicks and skewers. Chaucer, in the "Nun's Priest's Tale" (Pertelote recommended its berries to Chaunticleer as a laxative) refers to it as "gaytre". The names "gatter" and "gadrose" crop up frequently in the old herbals but there is debate as to whether these come from the Anglo-Saxon "gad" (referring to spindle's usefulness in making ox goads) of from "gat" (from the fact that only goats will browse on it).

The old English names of plants provide fascinating glimpses of their roles in the lives of our ancestors. In the case of the spindle, the botanical name is equally revealing. Euonyme was the mother of the Furies, and Linneus doubtless had this in mind when he named this shrub of which Gerard wrote "If three or fower of these fruits be given to a man they purge both by vomit and stoole". The shrub contains a bitter resin, euonymin, which has been used medicinally as a tonic, laxative and hepatic stimulant. In small doses, it is said to stimulate the appetite but in larger doses it irritates the intestine - even goats suffer if they get too much of it!

Spindle berries used to be baked, powdered, and sprinkled on the head to kill lice. But while the shrub may thus find a use as an insecticide, it also harbours one of the gardener's worst insect foes: the black bean aphid. Females of the aphid's sexual generation lay eggs near the buds in the autumn and these hatch as the buds open in April. Colonies develop on the young leaves and shoots, and winged, parthenogenic females migrate to beans (and certain other plants) as temperatures begin to rise in May. "This shrub" said Theophratus of the spindle, "is hurtful to all things" - I wish someone would tell that to the aphids!

David Yarham
January 1998

See also...

Report of the visit from Cambridge Natural History Society in August 2017


News about a visit by the local branch of Butterfly Conservation charity taking place in August 2016


News about the very special area of Colin's Bank, published in February 2015

Pasque Flower

One of our Friends sent us this beautiful picture of some Pasque Flowers taken in amongst the Cowslips in May 2016.pasqueflower_jb_may2016_crop_453

Photo by Jill Butler