Trees & Shrubs – Spindle Tree – Euonymus europæus

Trees & Shrubs – Flowering Trees & Shrubs – The Spindle Tree

Euonymus /juːˈɒnɪməs/, often called spindle or spindle tree, is a genus of flowering plants in the staff vine family, Celastraceae. It comprises about 130 species of deciduous and evergreen shrubs and small trees. They are mostly native to East Asia, extending to the Himalayas, and they are also distributed in Europe, Australasia, North America, and Madagascar. 50 species are endemic to China.

The Spindle-tree (Euonymus europæus) is indigenous to Britain and in fact is most at home in the south of England, and often found in London.


The flowers occur in small groups, inconspicuous and of green or yellow shades. The leaves are opposite (rarely alternate) and simple ovoid, typically 2–15 cm long, and usually with a finely serrated margin. The fruit is a pink-red four- or five-valved pod-like berry, which splits open to reveal the fleshy-coated orange seeds.

The seeds are eaten by frugivorous birds, which digest the fleshy seed coat and disperse the seeds in their droppings. Many species are used for medicinal use, and parts of the plants can be poisonous to humans.

Cultivation and uses

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Mature spindle fruit (Euonymus sp.), split open to reveal the seeds

The wood of some species was traditionally used for the making of spindles for spinning wool; this use is the origin of the English name of the shrubs.

Spindles are popular garden shrubs, grown for their foliage, the deciduous species often exhibiting very bright red autumnal colours, and also for the decorative berries.

London Tree Surgeons class The Spindle Tree as a hardy ornamental flowering tree. The horticulturalist A D Webster describes the following species;


EUONYMUS AMERICANA.—American Spindle Tree. North America, 1686. This is a deciduous or semi-evergreen shrub, of about 6 feet in height, found over a wide area in Canada and the United States. It is of partially erect growth, with long and lithe branches, covered with pleasing light green bark. Flowers appearing in June, and succeeded by rough, warted, brilliant scarlet capsules, which are particularly showy and attractive. It likes a shady situation, and rich, rather damp soil.

E. EUROPAEUS.—West Asia, Europe (Britain), &c. An indigenous species, rarely exceeding 6 feet in height, and rendered very effective in autumn by reason of the pale scarlet fruit, which, when fully ripe, and having split open, reveals the orange-coloured arils of the seeds. It, too, delights to grow in the shade.

E. FIMBRIATUS, Japan and India, and its handsome variegated form, E. fimbriatus foliis variegatus et argenteo maculatus, are rather too tender for cultivation in this country, even in southern districts, and where afforded wall protection. E. verrucosus and E. atropurpureus are also worthy of cultivation.

E. LATIFOLIUS.—Broad-leaved Spindle Tree. A European species (1730), deciduous, and growing from 10 feet to sometimes fully 20 feet in height. The leaves are bright, shining green, and much larger than those of our native species. Flowers, purplish-white, appearing in June; the capsules large, deep red, and when open contrasting very effectively with the bright orange arils in which the seeds are enveloped. It is a very distinct and beautiful, small-growing lawn tree, and succeeding, as it does, best in shade is an extra qualification.

The horticulturalist and tree expert Edward Step also describes the common Spindle Tree (Euonymus europæus) and the Broad-leaved Spindle (E. latifolius) from Europe.

 The Spindle-tree (Euonymus europæus).

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spindle tree winter


The Spindle-tree (Euonymus europæus).

The Spindle is right on the borderland between trees and shrubs, for though it will grow into a tree twenty feet high, yet our hedgerow specimens are usually bushlike, and only ten or twelve feet high. Until the autumn the Spindle, we fear, is rarely recognized as such, but gets confused with Buckthorn and Dogwood. In October, however, its quaint fruits have changed to a pale crimson hue, which renders them the most conspicuous feature of a hedgerow—even of one plentifully decorated with scarlet hips and haws and bryony-berries. The unusual tint of the Spindle, and the fact that it swings on a slender stalk, at once mark it out from the rigid-stalked hips and haws.

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spindle tree detail

Spindle-tree. A, flowers.

The trunk of the Spindle is clothed in smooth grey bark. The twigs, which are in pairs, starting from opposite sides of a branch, are four-angled. The shining leaves vary from egg-shaped to lance-shaped, with finely-toothed edges. They are arranged in pairs, and in autumn they change to yellow and red. When bruised they give off a fœtid odour, the juice is acrid, and said to be poisonous—a charge which is laid against the bark, flowers, and seed as well. The small greenish-white flowers are borne in loose clusters, of the type known as cymes, from the axils of the leaves, and appear in May and June. Some contain both stamens and pistil, but others are either stamenate or pistillate. The calyx is cut into four or six parts, the petals and stamens agree with these parts in number, but the lobes of the stigma only range from three to five, corresponding with the cells of the ovary. The fruit is deeply lobed, and marked with grooves, indicating the lines of future division, when the lobes open and disclose the seeds, at first covered with their orange jackets, or arils, after the manner of the mace that encloses the nutmeg.

The hardness and toughness of Spindle-wood has long been esteemed in the fashioning of small wares where these qualities are essential, and the common name is a survival of the days when spinning was the occupation of every woman. Then spindles were in demand for winding the spun thread upon, and no wood was more suitable than that of Euonymus for making them. It shares with the Cornel (Cornus sanguinea) the name Dogwood; it is also Skewerwood, Prickwood, and Pegwood, all suggestive of uses to which it is or was applied. The young shoots make a very fine charcoal for artists’ use.

The Spindle is indigenous throughout our islands, but cannot be said to be generally common; it is rarer in Scotland and Ireland than in England.

Among the exotic species cultivated in our parks and gardens are the handsome variegated forms of the Evergreen Spindle (Euonymus japonicus) of China and Japan, and the Broad-leaved Spindle (E. latifolius) from Europe.

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spindle tree flowers

Flowers of Spindle.

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spindle tree fruits

Fruits of Spindle-tree.

Wikipedia list the following species.

  • Euonymus acanthocarpus
  • Euonymus acuminifolius
  • Euonymus alatus – winged spindle
  • Euonymus americanus – strawberry-bush
  • Euonymus angulatus
  • Euonymus assamicus
  • Euonymus atropurpureus – eastern burning-bush
  • Euonymus bungeanus – winterberry euonymus
  • Euonymus castaneifolius
  • Euonymus cochinchinensis
  • Euonymus cornutus
  • Euonymus dichotomus
  • Euonymus echinatus
  • Euonymus europaeus – European spindle
  • Euonymus fimbriatus
  • Euonymus fortunei – Fortune’s spindle
  • Euonymus frigidus
  • Euonymus glandulosus
  • Euonymus grandiflorus
  • Euonymus hamiltonianus – Hamilton’s spindle, Himalayan spindle
  • Euonymus japonicus – Japanese spindle, evergreen spindle
  • Euonymus javanicus
  • Euonymus kiautschovicus – spreading euonymus
  • Euonymus kwangtungensis
  • Euonymus lanceifolia
  • Euonymus latifolius – broadleaf spindle
  • Euonymus melananthus
  • Euonymus mengtzeanus
  • Euonymus morrisonensis
  • Euonymus myrianthus
  • Euonymus nanoides
  • Euonymus nanus – dwarf spindle
  • Euonymus nitidus
  • Euonymus obovatus – running strawberry-bush
  • Euonymus occidentalis – western burning-bush
  • Euonymus oxyphyllus
  • Euonymus pallidifolius
  • Euonymus paniculatus
  • Euonymus pauciflorus
  • Euonymus pendulus (syn. E. lucidus)
  • Euonymus phellomanus
  • Euonymus pittosporoides
  • Euonymus planipes – dingle-dangle tree
  • Euonymus prismatomerioides
  • Euonymus pseudovagans
  • Euonymus sachalinensis
  • Euonymus sanguineus
  • Euonymus schensianus
  • Euonymus semenovii
  • Euonymus serratifolius
  • Euonymus tenuiserrata
  • Euonymus thwaitesii
  • Euonymus velutinus
  • Euonymus verrucocarpa
  • Euonymus verrucosoides
  • Euonymus verrucosus
  • Euonymus walkeri
  • Euonymus wui

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