Wednesday 16 November 2011

Spindle - Euonymus europaeus

The Spindle Euonymus europaeus is a small deciduous tree, usually only a couple of metres high. The flowers are small and cream, the leaves go orange in the autumn, but its real glory is its seedpods in the autumn. They are the most luscious coral pink, and open up to reveal bright orange fleshy seeds.

Spindle 'berries'.
The seeds are attractive birds, and the tree grows anywhere the birds take them - hedgerows, woodland fringes or fence lines where the soil is chalky. The wood is extremely hard and as the name suggests, was once used to make spindles, for spinning wool while you walk, talk and think of other things. Because of its fine grain and the ease with which it can be split, it can be sharpened to a thin point and was used to make toothpicks, knitting needles, arrows and skewers. Apparently it was also used to make birdcages.

I was told recently that it makes the best artists charcoal, and this seems to be the one use for this wood that has continued into modern times (although a quick check of the internet revealed that it is not at all easy to get - almost all artists charcoal seems to be made of willow these days). It's the sort of thing an enterprising and determined artist could make for themselves though.

The French expression for charcoal sketch is dessin au fusain. This shows you how closely associated with artists charcoal the plant was, at least in France - the French name for Spindle is le fusain, and the word is now a generic term for artists charcoal, even when it is made from willow.



Tim said...

Making your own artists Charcoal
Collect fresh spindle twigs, pack tightly into a long, small diameter tin with a good, close fitting lid. I used to use a Tate & Lyle Golden Syrup tin. With the lid off, stand the tin in the fire until you see it starting to smoke [not steam]. Take out of fire and firmly put lid on. Put back into fire for about ten minutes and then take outside to let it smoulder away overnight.
In the morning, if the tin is cool, try and get the lid off without shaking the tin too much... the contents are very fragile. The tin I used to use allowed the use of a screwdriver to lever up the lid.
Unpack carefully. You will always get some good sticks... 70%'ish has been my best. The outer ones are often overdone and the centre is occasionally uncooked.

Diane said...

Interesting. We have one that we have just moved from the UK that has been potted for almost 10 years. We plan to plant it out here in spring. Strange, everything else agrees but we have never seen seed pods. Maybe being root bound has restricted the pods. Diane

Anonymous said...

I'm definitely trying the charcoal thing - thanks Tim!

And it's so strange - it's only yesterday I googled 'pink and orange berries' - must be because they're so stunning at the moment. I think they're magnificent!

Niall & Antoinette said...

Those berries are a fantastic colour.

@Tim - charcoal making sounds like good fun. Shame I can't draw!

Tim said...

With charcoal, you don't need good drawing shills.... you can smudge it into shape! ;-)

Colin and Elizabeth said...

We see a lot of spindleberry around here and it always reminds me of the Rusland Valley in Cumbria, which is the only place I've ever seen it before. Interestingly, Rusland is an area known for charcoal burning. One of the main names in this is Owen Jones

He produces oak swill baskets and hazel fencing as well as charcoal burning - though mainly using coppiced hazel for this. I'd be interested to know if he uses spindleberry too.

chm said...

Spindle in French is "fuseau." The name of the tree is "fusain", so I wondered if both names had the same origin. They both come from the Latin "fusus" i.e. spindle. So, just like in English, the tree was named after what it's wood was used for. Or was it the other way around? And the artist's charcoal, fusain, was named after the tree. Interesting, no?

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