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Euonymus europaeus, spindle tree
An uncommon tree, in the UK, possibly, because its attractiveness to aphids makes it unwelcome.
Meaning of the Name
From the Greek, ‘eu’, ‘good’ and ‘onama’, ‘name’. Said to have meant ‘lucky’ and to have been used ironically because it was an unwelcome plant. Or, from 'Euonyme', the mother of the Furies and, thus, a reference to its poisonous nature.
Common Names and Synonyms
European euonymus, spindle tree, prick timber, prickwood, spindleberry.
Sources - William
William Turner was born in Morpeth, Northumberland, in 1508 and studied Physick and Philosophy at Cambridge. He was a radical Protestant cleric who spent long periods in exile in Europe because his views, his writings and his actions put his life in danger in England.
Much of his time in Europe was spent studying natural history in Italy. He was able to return to England in 1558, after Queen Mary’s death, and resumed his position as Dean of Wells. He died in London in 1568 shortly after publication of the final part of his ‘A New Herball’.
‘A New Herbal’ was published in three parts. Part 1 was published in 1551 in Europe and contains many errors, mostly because it was printed by non-English speakers who could not correct the proofs. The second part was published in 1562 and the third in 1568 along with a fully revised version of the first part.
Turner is now said to be the ‘Father of Botany’ but his political views and his long periods of exile meant he was not as famous as Gerard who followed him by thirty years.
How Poisonous, How Harmful?
The poisonous components have not been fully defined. The effects suggest the presence of glycosides. Early literature gives a variety of names to possible components but these are all variations on the plant name.
Though the poison is present throughout the plant it is the berries which, most often*, cause harm. Symptoms appear up to 12 hours after ingestion and involve diarrhoea, vomiting and stimulation of the heart. Larger doses can cause hallucinations, loss of consciousness and symptoms similar to meningitis.
Its 'loathsome smell and bitter taste' discourage consumption.
*'Most often' should be understood as 'of the extremely few cases, most'.
There are no fully documented incidents involving ingestion of the berries and, although John Gerard says they can easily kill, he goes on to say that goats are especially at risk.
There has been one reported instance of problems arising from working with the wood and care is required to prevent inhalation of the sawdust.
Folklore and Facts
William Turner is known as the ‘Father of Botany’ mostly because of his ‘Grete Herbal’ published in the 16th century. In it, he gives the name ‘spindle tree’ to the Euonymus europaeus because he says he cannot find an English name for it so the Dutch name, spilboome, may as well be used.
The flowers are pollinated by flies. In some parts of Africa its juice was used as an arrow poison. The yellow dye obtained by boiling the seeds was used for colouring butter. If the tree flowered early an outbreak of plague was thought to be imminent.
The tree offers a perfect winter nesting site for black bean aphids and is, therefore, unwelcome in many gardens.