Very little compares to a really good show of autumn leaf colour. In our mild, temperate climate, we rarely experience the extravagant displays that North Americans enjoy, however we do have enough varieties of trees and shrubs available that will help us to orchestrate our own end of the season finale worthy of any American landscape.
The native European spindle, Euonymus Europaeus, thrives on alkaline soils and is common on the chalk downs of southern England and on limestone hills and vales. Preferring full sun and freely draining soils, it is tolerant of winds and hard frosts. Whilst it can be found in the shrubby lower canopy of ash, beech or yew woodland, the leaves will be at their most colourful in an open, sunny position. The one situation it will not tolerate is boggy, waterlogged ground.
As winter approaches these small trees/shrubs shake off their previously plain appearance, as the leaves burn red and purple and the bright, jewel-like fruits that gleam in spinning cascades of pink and orange. The droplets provide pure, bright colour amid the drab branches of other deciduous shrubs and persist like hot embers long after the foliage has fallen.
The fruit is poisonous to humans, as are all parts of the plant. The toxic berries, however, have been put to good use. One traditional remedy for head lice, involved applying the crushed berries to the scalp. Referencing the plant’s poisonous nature, the name ‘euonymus’ may originate from Euonyme. In Greek mythology she was the mother of vengeance-wreaking goddesses, the Furies. In Europe, the branches were used for spinning raw wool – hence the imported name of spindle – while in Britain it was more commonly used to make toothpicks, knitting-needles and skewers.
The bright fruits are often initially seen dangling below a mantle of colourful leaves. Before it falls, the spindle tree’s foliage has one of the most impressive transformations in the British landscape. It turns from an unobtrusive dark green to a bright pinkish red with splashes of purple and hints of orange. ‘Red Cascade’, a cultivar of Euonymus Europaeus, has the brightest and perhaps best colour for this time of year of any plant. It has also earned it an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.
Spindle trees need little work. They form a naturally balanced and well branching framework. Little pruning is required, removing only dead, diseased or crossing and rubbing branches, or branches that are growing in an awkward place. Ideally, spindle trees are grown where there is an unobstructed view of them in winter. The centre of an island bed is a good location, where its summer foliage offers a useful green foil for tall flowering herbaceous perennials. A winter border with bright-stemmed winter dogwoods Cornus alba, Cornus sericea and Cornus sanguinea, is another good site.
Euonymus europaeus ‘Red Cascade’ is inconspicuous for most of the year, although its foliage makes a pleasant backdrop for other flowering plants. What will set it apart in autumn, is association with plants that will contrast with or complement its vibrant foliage. Some of the Miscanthus varieties work well and underplanting with spring bulbs is a nice way of extending the season of interest in the same area. The spindle tree is a fascinating plant, valued for its unique aesthetic qualities, wildlife-friendly properties and its many practical uses. It deserves a home in British gardens where the bright fruits and colouring leaves welcome the changing of the seasons and feed hungry birds.