Spindle tree: growth & care

Spindle tree: growth & care

In this article, you will learn everything there is to know about planting and caring for spindle trees. On top of that, we will tell you whether spindle trees are poisonous and whether they are winter hardy.

Spindle trees (Euonymus) are incredibly versatile. The intensely coloured spindles can be used as privacy screens for the garden. They can add some life to otherwise bare walls and fences, for example. The plants are also very robust. In the past, spindle wood was used for the production of various everyday objects such as knitting needles or spindles – which gave the spindle tree its name.

Spindle tree: origin & 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 fruits ripen, the four lobes split open and reveal their orange seeds. Depending on the type of spindle tree, the capsules can take on a brown or grey hue. The spindle is also sometimes referred to as “spindle bush”, which describes the plant’s growth more accurately. Spindles can reach a maximum height of five metres and have a rather shrubby form. They are densely branched with a voluminous crown. Many species can also be recognised by their square stems. Whether they are evergreen or deciduous also depends on the type of spindle tree. Evergreen spindle varieties often display gold or white leaves in autumn, whereas deciduous spindle tress 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 seizures, collapse and even death. However, these symptoms occur twelve hours after consumption at the earliest.

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 the 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 in favourable conditions. 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 which form a beautiful contrast to the deep green inside of the leaves.
  • ‘Microphylla Variegata’: This variety is characterised by its small leaves of about 3 cm which have a white edge.
  • ‘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 works great on green walls. This spindle species is often used for graves or as small hedges, because it is so low-maintenance. Winter creepers are winter hardy to temperatures about -20 °C, even though it is 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 the most common species of spindle trees native to Europe, which is why it is also known as the common spindle. The shrub grows densely branched and upright. Its leaves turn a deep red in autumn. In the winter, the European spindle tree is decorated with its striking, colourful fruits.

euonymus europaeus
One of the most well known types of spindle tree is the European spindle tree [Shutterstock.com/ hraska]

Broadleaf spindle (Euonymus latifolius)

Broadleaf spindle trees are very similar to the European spindle. They can be distinguished by primarily by their broader leaves. This species is native to Europe but can only be found in the Alps and the Alpine foothills.

Winged spindle (Euonymus alatus)

The winter hardy winged spindle originates from Japan and China. Due to its intense red autumn colouring, the plant is also referred to as “the burning bush”. This species grows about 2 to 3 metres tall and wide. Its stems are notable for their corky ridges, reminiscent of wings, especially in the winter.

Dingle-dangle tree (Euonymus planipes)

This spindle species comes from Asia originally. It can reach a height of up to 3 and 5 metres and is often grown as an ornamental shrub. Its winter buds are comparatively large, pointed and of a striking purple-red colour.

Planting spindle trees

Spindle trees in your own garden? That’s a guarantee of a sight for sore eyes! A single winged spindle, a hedge with European or broadleaf spindles or winter creeper as a ground cover – they are all great additions to any garden.

The robust plants are not very demanding when it comes to their habitat. In nature, spindle trees can often be found at the edge of forests, where it can be both bright and shady at times. A sunny to semi-shady location is therefore the best option for spindles. The shrubs are fairly competitive in regard to their roots and they do not mind the root pressure of strong neighbour plants.

The soil should be fresh, nutrient-rich and neutral. However, the European and broadleaf spindle tress prefer rather dry and slightly calcareous soil. Both species can tolerate damp soil well, but they will grow faster and with less control.

Spindle tree care

Spindles have the image of being very low-maintenance shrubs which require little care. 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 to hang down. Potted spindles do have to be watered because their root system cannot spread far enough. They should be watered regularly, so that their roots do not dry out whenever the soil above the ground has dried.

Pruning spindle trees

You do not necessarily need 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 so that you will not disturb birds that are nesting in the bushes. We recommend pruning spindle trees on a frost-free and cloudy day so as to not put too much strain on the plants and to not disturb any animals that are potentially nesting in the tree. However, you can make some minor cuts over the summer.

Feeding spindles

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 organic plant feed. Potted spindles should be provided with fresh nutrients this way as well.

Propagating spindle trees

Spindles can be easily propagated with cuttings. In spring, you should cut a shoot with about three to four pairs of leaves and remove the bottom pair. You can now 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 winter hardy. Japanese spindles, however, can only survive temperatures down to -5 °C. They therefore require some winter protection during the cold season.

spindle tree in winter
Depending on the type of spindle tree, some can endure winters outdoors [Shutterstock.com/Dagnija Aboltina]

You should keep the evergreen shrubs in a place with temperatures between 6 and 10 °C.  The spindles’ winter quarter does not need to be excessively bright but there should be a natural light source. If this is not the case, a plant lamp will do the trick. During winter, the plants only need very little water – the substrate should always be slightly moist. You should 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 behaviour or by draining the soil. A wrong 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.

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