“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.”
William Turner, the “Father of Botany,” knew this. In his book, Grete Herbal, he created a common name for Euronymus europaeus because he couldn’t find an English name for this plant. His spelling was 16th-century, so bear with him — and me: “The Duche men call it in Netherlande, spilboome, that is, spindel-tree, because they use to make spindels of it in that country, and me thynke it may be as well named in English seying we have no other name.”
However, Turner’s wisdom was lacking when he continued, “I know no goode propertie that this tree hath, saving only it is good to make spindels and brid of cages (bird-cages).”
Spindle trees have many uses beyond being made into spindles to spin wool and bird cages. Its hard wood is fine-grained and easily split and is employed for skewers, toothpicks, knitting needles and carving. A good type of artist quality charcoal can be obtained from its wood. Its roots are deeply useful, too, yielding a non-elastic rubber used to make plastic and as electrical insulation.
But it is the fruits that give this plant its identity and character. Quadrangle or square green stems with opposite leafing will help identify this plant when it is in its bare season. You can’t miss this tree now, with its bright pink and orange fruit in the grays of autumn. A four-to-five part pink seed pod splits open to expose orange berries within.
These fruits are beautiful and deadly, being poisonous to humans and livestock. In some parts of Africa the juice from a variety of spindle tree berries was used as an arrow poison.
In the Middle Ages, some folks believed that if the spindle tree flowered early, an outbreak of the plague was imminent. To thwart the plague, it was advised to carry a spindle sprig.
Hailing from Europe, the spindle tree was brought to this country as an ornamental, and has subsequently become a bit invasive. This is not to say that people did not find uses for it. Those distinctive berries can be boiled to produce a yellow dye that was reportedly used to provide color to butter. You can also bake the seeds and crush them into a powder if you need a natural insecticide to sprinkle in the corners and crevasses of your home. And don’t forget the birds. As a favorite tree of robins, it has been called robin’s bread.
Spindle tree has other aliases, too, that tell a story of further usefulness. Prick tree, death alder, pincushion tree, skewer wood and louse berry (removing hair lice is another use for that dried spindle berry dust) allude to its other functions.
Its scientific name, Euronymus europaeus, is derived from two Greek words that translate into ‘having a good name,’ since this plant was thought to bring luck and prosperity. On the flip side, it shares its name with Euonyme, who in Greek mythology was known as the mother of the Furies and was notorious for causing trouble. Certainly this plant causes trouble on a few accounts, but has managed the rare trick of keeping its good name in spite of that. And that’s important. As Proverbs has it, “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favour rather than silver and gold.”
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.