Quick facts

Common name: spindle

Scientific name: Euonymus europaea

Family: Celastraceae

Origin: native

Spindle is a deciduous native tree, and mature trees grow to 9m and can live for more than 100 years. The bark and twigs are deep green, becoming darker with age, and have light brown, corky markings. Twigs are thin and straight.

Identified in winter by: the vivid pink fruits which have bright orange seeds. Buds and twigs are angular and green.

What does spindle look like?

Spindle leaf on white background

Credit: Nature Photographers Ltd / WTML

Leaves

The leaves are shiny and slightly waxy, and have tiny sharp teeth along the edges. They turn a rich orange-red before falling in autumn.

Spindle in flower

Credit: Nature Photographers Ltd / WTML

Flowers

Spindle is hermaphrodite, meaning each flower contains both male and female reproductive parts. Flowers have four petals and grow in clusters in May and June, and are pollinated by insects.

Spindle berries

Credit: Nature Photographers Ltd / WTML

Fruits

After pollination, flowers develop into bright pink fruits with bright orange seeds, which look a bit like popcorn.

Not to be confused with:

Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) when the spindle is in leaf.

Where to find spindle

Spindle is native to much of Europe and can be found most commonly on the edges of forests and in hedges, scrub and hedgerows. It thrives in chalky soils and is less common in Scotland.

Spindle berries in autumn

Trees woods and wildlife

A sign of ancient woodland

Spindle is an ancient-woodland indicator. If you spot it while you're out exploring, it could be a sign you're standing in a rare and special habitat. 

Learn more about ancient woodland
Spindle berries with starling flock feeding

Credit: Gary K. Smith / naturepl.com

Value to wildlife

The leaves are eaten by caterpillars of moths, including the magpie, spindle ermine and scorched, as well as the holly blue butterfly. The leaves also attract aphids and their predators, including hoverflies, ladybirds and lacewings, as well as the house sparrow and other species of bird.

The flowers are a rich source of nectar and pollen for insects such as the St Mark’s fly.

Mythology and symbolism

The spindle’s botanical name, Euonymus, is from the Greek ‘eu’, meaning ‘good’ and ‘onoma’, meaning ‘name’. This is said to have meant ‘lucky’. However, in some areas, it was also thought that if the spindle flowered early, an outbreak of the plague was on the way.

Uses of spindle

Spindle timber is creamy-white, hard and dense. In the past it was used to make ‘spindles’ for spinning and holding wool (hence its name), as well as skewers, toothpicks, pegs and knitting needles.

The fruits were baked and powdered, and used to treat head lice or mange in cattle. Both the leaves and fruit are toxic to humans – the berries having a laxative effect.

Today, spindle timber is used to make high-quality charcoal for artists. Cultivated forms of the tree are also grown in gardens for autumn colour.

Threats and conservation

Spindle may be affected by vine weevil, spider mite and a sap-feeding scale insect, which can cause dieback.