The winged spindle

by James Alexander-Sinclair

The leaves are 70 shades of scarlet, and they contrast with the extraordinary orange seeds and pink seed-pods. The whole plant makes an eyeball-searing spectacle - almost hallucinogenic.

Euonymus alatus fruitsUntil I became interested in gardening - embarrassingly, half a lifetime ago - I thought a spindle was just a mechanical thing. It made me think of Sleeping Beauty, who, under the curse of a wicked fairy, pricked her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fell asleep for 100 years.

But I learned about a different type of spindle on a field trip to Kew Gardens, in the autumn of 1984. I remember the moment of revelation very well. At the time I was enrolled on a 10-week gardening course (my only formal training - and I'm ashamed to admit that my attendance record was so poor it would have attracted the scrutiny of social services in other circumstances.)

I recall that I was late to join my fellow budding gardeners on the trip. The weather was cold but Kew was looking beautifully autumnal. We were wandering along trying to identify trees and shrubs, when I was stopped dead in my tracks by one particular plant: Euonymus alatus, the winged spindle or burning bush.

I have fallen in love with many plants, but Euonymus alatus was probably the first. Hailing from China and Japan, it is slow-growing, and deciduous. The greenish-white flowers appear in spring and, for much of the year, it is a green, innocuous-looking shrub.

However, in autumn, it boasts the most spectacular colour. The leaves are 70 shades of scarlet, and they contrast with the extraordinary orange seeds and pink seed-pods. The whole plant makes an eyeball-searing spectacle - almost hallucinogenic.

In parts of the USA, Euonymus alatus is classified as invasive. In fact, in Massachusetts and New Hampshire it is illegal to sell the species. Fortunately, it is not outlawed here.

I have planted Euonymus alatus and other Euonymus species many times. I also love Euonymus europaeus, which makes a fabulous addition to a native hedge, adding ‘oomph’ to the hawthorns and dogwoods. Spindles for spinning wool were made from its extremely hard wood - bringing us neatly back to Sleeping Beauty.

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Gardeners' World Web User 10/10/2011 at 16:16

I planted a spindle tree two years ago and sadly, it has failed to thrive. it produces a few leaves every spring but no flowers and so obviously no colourful seeds or pods. I love them too and it has been a real disappointment. perhaps it needs a prune? when would be the best time to prune it and how hard should I go? sherrie x

Gardeners' World Web User 11/10/2011 at 15:03

Hi, Can anyone tell me if cold stratification is needed for annual seeds to help then germinate earlier, thanks.........

Gardeners' World Web User 11/10/2011 at 20:44

you have just reminded me of when i used to go walking in some woodland near here and was mezmerised by the spindle trees i saw there, i walked past them and touched them every time i passed that way, daily in facvt when taking the dog for a walk, i saved some of the seeds and tried in vain to propagate them this spring, maybe the seeds were too old, i maust go there this weekend to see them again and perhaps collect some fresh seed, only a few. would they be best put in soil at this time of year to over winter?

Gardeners' World Web User 13/10/2011 at 14:47

I have just been given a Euonymus alatus by my mum, which I hope to plant out this weekend, after oohing over the pictures of E. a. 'Compactus' in several magazines this month. Turned out she hunted one down a couple of years ago which has sulked in a pot since with nowhere to go. We are happy to give it a home, and she is happy to admire it here!

Gardeners' World Web User 20/10/2011 at 08:26

Please help! I am a new gardener and not sure if it is too late to prune shrubs and over grown trees!? two wks ago some shrubs were still showing signs of new buds and the garden is still very green! can anyone help.

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