At this time of year it is always a delight to see the wild berries in hedgerows and on the trees. One of my particular favourite fruit bearing trees, which is not a common sight, is the spindle wood tree. We have two small ones in hedgerow on the recreation ground in Bridge. For most of the year they are just very ordinary looking small shrubbish trees, but in September they bear little pink oriental looking berries which make them stand out for just a month or so.
What is particularly intriguing about the spindle tree is its history. Euonymus, the family name, itself in Greek means ‘having a good name’, but actually the tree has several names, all giving clues to its uses.
The wood of the tree is very hard and the branches tend to be very straight, so the term spindle, comes as we might first assume, from its use for making spindles for making yarn. They are essentially small straight weighted sticks, used to twist woolen fibres together. Incidentally we can be sure that it was on a spindle made with wood from the spindle tree that Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger, not a spinning wheel which is the modernised version. Spindle was also another word for axle, so it would have had all sorts of uses in that way as well. But looking further back in time we discover that spindle was originally an ancient word for arrow, so can we assume that this hard, straight, easily sharpened wood was first used for making arrows too?
Other names include prickwood, because it was used to make spikes and toothpicks; spokewood, for obvious reasons, and louse berry, because the berries can be used to treat headlice. In France, the tree is called fusain (a word for charcoal) because it was used to make the charcoal sticks which artists used for drawing.
Most of the spindle tree is poisonous to humans and in parts of Africa the berries were traditionally used to concoct a rich poison, into which the tribesmen dipped their arrows. It’s intriguing to wonder if their victims died, or simply fell asleep for a hundred years.