Tree Stories 12 – Spindle

Spindle is now published on its own page under ‘Tree Stories’, or follow the link here.

Euonymus alatus 'Compactus'

Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’

This has been an interesting story for me to write – mostly for all the wrong reasons! It was started in February and I had the basic outline, and then learned in a meditation what the next story should be and that this one was done; it just needed writing down. Well that was it, I couldn’t write another word and had a complete block. For other reasons I then took a break from creative writing for a few months, but still there was this story waiting to be written down. Finally in September I managed to get back to writing and get this story finished, but I no longer felt inspired by it in the same way; I had moved on. So instead, it became an exercise in editing and determination to try and make something of it and do justice to what is a lovely tree just coming into it’s brief season. Strangely though, persevering has been satisfying in its own way, as well as freeing, like I had passed through some barrier, or completed a test successfully.

After finishing the story, I then discovered Spindle symbolised completing lessons in order to move forwards, for the sake of honour rather than reward! Clearly I hadn’t connected sufficiently to this tree while writing the story, or more likely Spirit wanted me to experience the lesson in a very personal and direct way.

Spindle is sometimes listed as the 22nd ogham Oir, which is also known as Gold and therefore associated with wealth and inspired knowledge. Spells using Spindle can apparently be long lasting. When Spindle appears it often heralds unexpected positive things happening as revelations or thunder and lightening go with this ogham. It is also associated with community – to develop knowledge and wisdom of the right relationship with others in the community (another theme which unexpectedly came through in my story), as well as that wisdom giving the right and obligation to question authority when necessary. Finally the Spindle Tree, separate from oghams, is traditionally associated with crafts and creative endeavours, since the spindle was such an essential part of European culture being carried by most women and used daily until the development of the spinning wheel, and so can be used to gain creative inspiration.

Spindle wood was used for spindles, bobbins, knitting needles, pegs, skewers, toothpicks, or any other circumstance where something small yet strong was required; the fact that it splits easily also helps to make thin, pointed items. Other uses include watchmaker’s cleaning tools, organ keys, and ear studs made of Spindle have been found on Dartmoor that are 4000 years old. Spindle also makes high quality charcoal for artists. Oils from the plant are used in soap, and a latex compound from the roots is used to make rubber, used in insulation for electrical components amongst other things, and plastics.

The flowers attract a variety of insects including bees, hoverflies and aphids, holly blue butterflies and several species of moth, and subsequently several songbirds. However the tree is poisonous to most animals including humans, the exception being goats which can browse on it quite happily. As a result, the ground berries have used for getting rid of head lice or as insecticides, and infusions made by boiling used for acne and other external complaints. In parts of Africa the berry juice was used for poison arrows. The berries were also used for a yellow dye (or green with alum), which some people used for colouring butter.

Euonymus alatus 'Compactus' with berries

Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’ with berries

Relatively fast growing to about 6m in height, it can be invasive, but is not long lived. In England it is now under threat; however some parts of the country, in particular the lower slopes of Dartmoor, seem to suit it well where a 2007 survey found it growing in 9% of hedgerows surveyed. This photograph shows not Euonymus europaeus, which has such wonderful pink berries in their bright orange cases, but Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’ which is a dwarf form and grows in my garden giving delight at this time of year.

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Growing Small ‘Trees’

Here is a gardening challenge that most people don’t face – how to grow small ‘trees’ for planting alongside a model railway.

The scale of the railway is 1:22.5, known to railway-minded people as Gauge 3 in the UK. (In real terms, around half inch to the foot.) So a tree would ideally be between 1 and 3 feet high. And preferably not too wide, or too fast growing, or it will be in the way of the trains. Other railway gardens use small plants, like alpines in a rocky landscape, but given this section of the garden is in shade for more than half of the day, and is fairly damp clay soil, and we don’t really want to feature the brick wall behind too strongly, trees seem like a better option!

I have one abiding problem, however. How to grow a tree that will keep growing and healthy, and not get too big too quickly. Some model gardens use crab apples on dwarfing rootstocks to great success, others use dwarfing conifers. Neither will grow well here. I have a couple of Japanese maples, now ten years old, one of which is growing very well and is almost too big, the other is rather less happy. There is a Euonymus alatus (Spindle) which can be pruned and seems to be doing well. A small magnolia was removed after such a devastating insect infestation that it never recovered, and a small Rowan, Sorbus reducta, failed to grow roots in the sticky clay. And then there is my willow.

Salix hastata ‘Wehrhahnii’ is supposed to take ten years to get to 3′ around, sometimes longer. It should never get larger than 5′. No one told my willow that! I prune it most years to try and keep it within bounds, yet this year I see it is rather a lot taller than the wall…

Salix hastata 'Wehrhahnii' growing very enthusiastically thanks to a nearby soakaway. Anemone nemorosa carpet its feet.

Salix hastata ‘Wehrhahnii’ growing very enthusiastically, thanks to a nearby soakaway. Anemone nemorosa carpets its feet.


While in the process of redesigning the garden generally, I have given this somewhat frustrating area quite a bit of thought. Even to the point of considering removing the willow and the maples and starting again with smaller, more prunable plants such as box and spring bulbs – until I realised the cause of its excessive growth. There is a soakaway nearby and so the willow is actually doing a sterling job of removing all the excess water, allowing other nearby plants to thrive instead of drown. So when it finishes flowering, I shall try a new pruning regime similar to a blackcurrant of removing a third of the branches to the base each spring, and see if over three years it can be stabilised to a more manageable size. Of course, I now realise that what would be really happy in that spot would be bog garden plants – but I haven’t come up with any that will grow at an appropriate scale yet!