Spindle Tree

(Euonymus europaeus) There is a tradition that the best drawing charcoal is made from spindle twigs. The French obviously thought so, for their name for the shrub is Fusain, which also means charcoal (Young). Evelyn (Sylva) recalls its use for violin bows, and for inlaying. But it is best known for making skewers (see such names as Prickwort, or Skiverwood). Aubrey. 1847 said. "the butchers doe make skewers of it, because it doth not tainte the meate as other wood will doe ...". English gypsies also used the wood for knitting needles and clothes pegs (Jordan), and, of course, there is the common name for the shrub -Spindle Tree. It seems that spindles were indeed made from this wood, but not necessarily in England, where there was no great tradition of spinning. The name is actually imported, for Turner. 1548 mentioned the Dutch name Spilboome, without implying an English equivalent. However, they say the wood is ideal for spindles, being tough, heavy, and very hard (Mabey. 1977).

".three or foure of the berries purge both by vomit and siege ...", observed Evelyn. That is not surprising, for they are poisonous, even if only relatively mildly so, for it is the leaves and bark that could be dangerous to children and animals. Gerard had no hesitation in warning that "this shrub is gurtfull to all things, and namely to Goats ...". Why goats in particular? The answer may, just possibly, be found in another common name for spindle - Gatter-tree, and its derivatives. 'Gatter' is OE gat, goat.

Spindle is called Death Alder in Buckinghamshire (Grigson. 1955), and as such is reckoned unlucky to bring in the house. And, of course, the berries are mildly poisonous. There are two other miscellaneous connections with death: Evelyn produced the odd information that parricides were scourged with rods of spindle, and apparently Pliny said that too many spindles flowers foretell a plague.

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