Plant-Lore

Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Spindle

For most of the year spindle (Euonymus europaeus) is an inconspicuous shrub or small tree most commonly found on base-rich soils, but in the autumn as it leaves start to turn red it produces spectacular pink fruits which split open to reveal bright orange seeds.  This autumn display ensures that spindle is frequently planted by park-managers and others who believe that native shrubs are more ‘worthy’ than non-natives even if the native is planted well outside its natural range of distribution.  Thus spindle is becoming more widespread throughout the British Isles.

Some plants attract a great deal of folklore, others attract surprisingly little.  Spindle is one of the latter, and no information regarding it has been contributed to Plant-lore Archive.  Indeed,  the herbalist William Turner (1508?-68), who had seen the plant ‘oft times’ was unable to find an English name for it.  However, the Local Names page on this website includes 36 names.

097Britten and Holland [1] recorded the name death-alder from north Buckinghamshire, where it was ‘thought unlucky to bring it into the house’.  Watts [2] suggests that a reason for this was that ‘the leaves, bark, as well as the fruit, are violent purgatives and are dangerous to children and animals.’

However, Allen and Hatfield [3] make no mention of spindle being used as a purgative, but record a tea made from its bark being used as a remedy for jaundice in Essex, and the ‘once widespread’ use of the plant to kill head lice (Pediculus humanus ssp. capitis).  Grigson [4] notes that John Evelyn (1620-1706) recorded that spindle fruits ‘were baked, powdered, and sprinkled on the heads of small boys to kill their nits and lice.’  More recently, when writing about Huish Episcopi, Somerset, as it was before 1933,  Wyatt [5] recorded that the villagers ‘scattered their houses with the powdered leaves of spindle-berry, a natural insecticide.’  Names which refer to such uses include louse-berries in Gloucestershire and Warwickshire [6], and the unlocalised dogwood: ‘a decoction of its leaves were used to wash dogs to free them from vermin’ [7].

Mabey [8] observes that although the young branches of spindle, ‘being heavy, smooth enough to rotate between the fingers and often as straight as dowels’ are ideal for use as spindles, they do ‘not seem to have been … especially … favoured for this purpose in Britain.’  More common seems to have been the use of spindle wood to make butchers’ skewers, hence the names skewer-timber and skewer-tree [9].

As a result of his thorough survey of literature relating to Ireland, Wyse Jackson [10] records spindle being used medicinally as a purgative, emetic and liver stimulant (and to treat head lice), to make shoemakers’ pegs, toothpicks, knitting needles (and skewers and spindles), and produce a variety of dyes.

1. J. Britten & R. Holland, A Dictionary of English Plant-names, 1886: 528.

2.  D. Watts, Elsevier’s Dictionary of Plant Names and their Origins, 2000: 11.

3. D.E. Allen & G. Hatfield, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition, 2004: 167.

4. G. Grigson, The Englishman’s Flora, 1987: 120 (no, this is incorrect Grigson makes no mention of Evelyn).

5.  I. Wyatt, Book of Huish, n.d.: 81.

6.  Grigson, op. cit.: 119.

7.  Britten & Holland, op. cit.: 157.

8. R. Mabey, Flora Britannica, 1996: 244.

9.  A.S. Macmillan, Popular Names of Flowers, Fruits, etc., 1922: 247; Britten & Holland, op. cit.: 434.

10.  P. Wyse Jackson, Ireland’s Generous Nature, 2014: 304.

Addendum:  T.R. Archer Briggs, in his Flora of Plymouth 1880: 78, suggests a reason why spindle might have been overlooked by many people:  ‘the wood of this shrub is that most commonly employed for butchers’ skewers  … its most beautifully coloured fruit would be seen more frequently if the bushes were not so much sought out, and cut down for the purpose of skewer-making.’

Images:  presumably planted, Beacon Park, Lichfield, Staffordshire, September 2014; inset, Brampton, Cambridgeshire, September 2015.

Updated 21 October 2017.