Spindle tree: growth & care
This article is all about planting and caring for the spindle tree. Find out whether spindle trees are poisonous and if they are winter hardy.
Spindle trees (Euonymus) are incredibly versatile. They make good privacy screens in gardens. The intensely coloured spindles can add life to otherwise bare walls and fences. The plants are very robust. And spindle wood used to be a common material for everyday objects such as knitting needles or spindles – hence the name.
- Spindle tree: origin and characteristics
- Is the spindle tree poisonous?
- Popular spindle tree species
- Planting spindle trees
- Spindle tree care
Spindle tree: origin and characteristics
Spindle trees can be found throughout the entire northern hemisphere, but mostly in East Asia. However, there are also spindle species that are native to Europe such as Euonymus europaeus – the European spindle or common spindle. Spindles bear striking and colourful capsular fruits. When the fruit ripens, the four lobes split open revealing orange seeds. Depending on the type of spindle tree, the capsules can take on a brown or grey colour. The spindle may also be referred to as “spindle bush”, which is actually more accurate of the plant’s shape and growth. Spindles can reach a maximum height of five metres and have a rather shrubby form. They are densely branched with a full-bodied crown. Many species feature square stems. There are deciduous and evergreen types of spindle trees. The latter ones often display gold or white leaves in autumn, whereas deciduous spindle trees turn red.
Is the spindle tree poisonous?
All parts of the spindle tree are poisonous, especially the fruits. They contain harmful glycosides and alkaloids, which lead to vomiting as well as diarrhoea when consumed. If the dose is too high, they can cause cramps, collapse and even death. However, these symptoms occur only twelve hours after consumption.
Spindles are not only poisonous to humans, but also to many animals, for instance horses or sheep. Only songbirds seem to be able to consume spindle berries without harm. Robins, magpies and thrushes use the berries as a source of food in winter.
Popular spindle tree species
There are about 170 known spindle species at present. Most of them are of Southeast Asian origin, some even come from the Himalayas. There are three deciduous spindle species that are native to Central Europe.
Japanese spindle (Euonymus japonicus)
The Japanese spindle tree, or evergreen spindle, comes from Asia and can grow several metres tall if conditions are favourable. However, this species is not winter hardy and must therefore be kept in a pot, where it remains somewhat smaller. The leaves are about 5 cm in size and can take on an array of different colours, depending on the variety.
- ‘Mareike’: This variety’s leaves have golden yellow edges forming a beautiful contrast to the deep green of the leaves.
- ‘Microphylla Variegata’: This variety is characterised by its small leaves of about 3 cm with a white rim.
- ‘Grey Beauty’: The leaves of this variety are green, grey and white.
Winter creeper (Euonymus fortunei)
The winter creeper, also known as Fortune’s spindle, is an evergreen spindle tree. As its name suggests, the plant does not grow upright, but creeps or climbs on the ground. It is therefore an ideal ground cover for garden beds or for creating green walls. This spindle species is often used for graves or small hedges, because it is so low-maintenance. Winter creepers are winter hardy to temperatures of about -20 °C, even though they are not native to Europe.
- ‘Emerald Gold’: This popular variety has golden yellow leaves.
- ‘Coloratus’: The leaves are dark green, between 3 and 7 cm in size and turn bright red in autumn and winter.
- ‘Harlequin’: A striking variety with almost white tips and lightly speckled leaves.
European spindle (Euonymus europaeus)
The European spindle is for obvious reasons the most common species in Europe, therefore also called common spindle. The shrub grows densely branched and upright. Its leaves turn a deep red in autumn. In winter, the European spindle tree bears striking, colourful fruits.
Broadleaf spindle (Euonymus latifolius)
Broadleaf spindle trees are very similar to the European type except for the leaves which are a bit broader. They are native to Europe but can only be found in the Alps and Alpine foothills.
Winged spindle (Euonymus alatus)
The winter hardy winged spindle originates from Japan and China. Due to its intense red colouring in autumn, it is also referred to as “the burning bush”. This species grows about 2 to 3 metres tall and wide. The branches bear corky ridges, reminiscent of wings, which are especially striking in the winter.
Dingle-dangle tree (Euonymus planipes)
This spindle species originally comes from Asia. It can reach a height of up to 3 and 5 metres and is often grown as an ornamental shrub. Its winter buds are rather large, pointed and of a striking purple-red colour.
Planting spindle trees
Spindle trees in your own garden? One cannot oversee this stunning plant! A single winged spindle, a hedge of European or broadleaf spindles or a winter creeper as ground cover – they are all great additions to any garden.
The robust plants are not very demanding when it comes to location. In nature, spindle trees can often be found on the edge of forests, where it is both bright and shady at times. A sunny to semi-shady location is therefore the best option for spindles. The shrubs are quite competitive when it comes to root space. They do not mind the root pressure of strong neighbour plants.
Spindles prefer fresh, nutrient-rich and ph neutral soil. However, the European and broadleaf spindle grow on more dry and slightly calcareous soil. Both species tolerate damp soil well, but will also grow faster and less controllable.
Spindle tree care
Spindles have the image of being very low-maintenance shrubs. When grown in the garden, spindles actually only need to be watered in the beginning. As soon as they start to grow, they develop an expansive root system and are able to take care of themselves. In dry summers, however, they do need a little water every now and then when their leaves start drooping. Potted spindles do have to be watered because their root system cannot spread far enough. Water them regularly for their roots not to dry out. The top layer is fine to dry off though.
Pruning spindle trees
You do not necessarily have to prune spindles, because they develop a beautifully shaped crown on their own. For evergreen spindle species that are kept as hedges or ground cover, you can simply use pruning shears. Spindles are very tolerant of pruning. However, you should make sure to cut back your plants in early spring or late autumn in order to not disturb birds nesting inside. We recommend pruning spindle trees on a frost-free and cloudy day so as to not put too much strain on the plant as well as animals potentially nesting in the tree. However, you can make minor cuts over summer.
If your spindle tree grows in humus and nutrient-rich soil, you do not need to fertilise. Only very poor soil should be enriched with a load of compost or some of our Plantura All Purpose Plant Food. Potted spindles require fresh nutrients that way as well.
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Propagating spindle trees
Spindles can easily be propagated with cuttings. Cut shoots in spring, with about three to four pairs of leaves and remove the bottom pair. Place the bottom third of the cutting into the soil. Be careful to keep it moist. After some time, the cutting will develop roots.
Overwintering spindle trees
The spindle species native to Europe, as well as the winter creeper, are hardy. Japanese spindles, however, only survive temperatures down to -5 °C. They therefore require winter protection for the cold season. Keep the evergreen shrubs in a place with temperatures between 6 and 10 °C. Winter residence does not need to be very bright but some kind of natural light source is advisable. If that is not possible, a plant lamp will do the trick. During winter, the plants only need very little water – the substrate should always be slightly moist. Do not fertilise the plants in the winter.
Spindle is losing leaves: what to do?
There can be various reasons for spindle trees to lose their leaves. Often, the soil is either too moist, which can lead to root rot, or it is too dry. You can counteract this by changing your watering routine or by draining the soil. Adverse pH value can also be the cause for leaf loss. The spindle does not like soil that is too acidic. If this is the case, you can apply some limestone to increase the pH value.