How to Grow European Spindle Tree

Beautiful autumn background is with the sprig of spindle tree
Nataliia_Melnychuk / Getty Images

Euonymus europaeus is a deciduous plant that can be grown as either a large shrub or small tree. It is native throughout Europe and into the western regions of Asia, and has been cultivated in North America where it has thrived to the point of becoming an invasive species in some areas.

It is known for the brilliantly colored foliage and fruits that appear in the autumn. Although birds can eat the fruit of this fast-growing species, all parts of this plant are toxic to humans and pets if eaten in sufficient quantity. The juice is even used in some parts of Africa to create poisoned arrows.

European spindle tree is a large tree, reaching up to 30 feet tall. Oil produced from this plant is used for soap making. The seed coating is used to create a yellow dye, and charcoal obtained from the wood is prized by artists.

Botanical Name Euonymus europaeus
Common Name European spindle tree, European euonymus, prick timber, prickwood, spindleberry, robins' bread
Plant Type Deciduous shrub
Mature Size 12-30 ft. tall
Sun Exposure Full sun, part shade
Soil Type Well-draining
Soil pH Acid, neutral and basic
Bloom Time April-June
Flower Color Yellowy-green flowers that mature to hot-pink red fruit
Hardiness Zones 3-7 (USDA)
Native Area Western Asia, Europe
Toxicity Toxic to humans and pets

Spindle Tree Care

To produce more abundant displays of fruit, it is recommended that this species is planted near another Euonymus europaeus cultivar for cross-pollination. The scientific name of this species is Euonymus europaeus, which is said by some to be derived from 'Euonyme', the mother of the Furies, a reference to the poisonous nature of this tree.

This plant is most often known as the European spindle tree, a name that comes from the fact that the stems are hard and at one time were sharpened into weaving spindles. Often simply called the spindle tree, it has other common names including European euonymus, prick timber, prickwood, and spindleberry. It has also been referred to as “robins' bread” because robins attracted to the seeds will fiercely defend a bush they have claimed as their territory.

Euonymus europaeus tends to have an irregular crown that becomes more rounded as it matures. It is possible to prune it to a single stem, creating a small tree shape.

The stems are smooth and dark green, with dark green elliptical leaves. The leaves are slightly serrated and grow 2 to 3-inches long. In the fall, the leaves turn yellow-green to red-purple.

The yellow-green flowers bloom in May and are not particularly notable. It is the fruit that follows in the fall that this plant is known for. Initially a pale-colored lobed capsule, as it matures it deepens to a hot pink-red color by autumn. Eventually, the fruit capsule splits open to reveal a red-orange berry with dark red seeds.

This species makes an attractive background shrub with a flowering border in front of it. European spindle trees also pair well with ornamental grasses. They make an excellent winter border for early flowering bulbs.

Light

European spindle trees prefer full sun to partial shade. If grown in full shade, this species will exhibit diminished coloration in the fall when it should be the most striking.

Soil

Euonymus europaeus should be planted in an area of well-drained soil.

Water

Do not over water your European spindle tree; the ground it's planted in should be damp but never saturated.

Temperature and Humidity

This is a very cold-hardy plant; it lives in USDA zones 3-7, tolerating temperatures down to the teens.

Fertilizer

Feed your European spindle tree a balanced, general purpose fertilizer each spring.

Is European Spindle Tree Toxic?

All parts of the Euonymus europaeus contain alkaloids and cardenolides and are poisonous if ingested by humans and pets, especially the seed pods and fruit.

Symptoms of Poisoning

In humans, stomach upset, heart irregularities, even convulsions are possible. In pets, diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain, weakness, heart rate abnormalities, and general malaise. Please call 911, or call your veterinarian, immediately.

European Spindle Tree Varieties

  • 'Winter creeper euonymus(Euonymus fortunei): This variety features evergreen leaves and orange fruit.
  • 'Winged spindle tree' (E. alatus): Also known as burning bush, it has winged stems and pink and orange fruit.
  • 'Strawberry bush' (E. americanus): This variety is shorter than its cousins—growing from 6-12 feet—and has ridged twigs that become purple in the sun.

Pruning

In the spring, prune it back to the desired shape and size, then mulch the base of the plant. If a tree form is desired, select the strongest shoot and cut all other shoots to the ground. Stake the single remaining shoot and when it reaches the height at which you want the tree foliage to begin, pinch off all growth below that spot. Continue trimming as needed to achieve desired growth pattern.

Propagating European Spindle Tree

European spindle tee can be propagated with cuttings from a mature plant, taken in late summer. Dip ends of cuttings in rooting hormone, then place in a pot, in a mixture of coarse sand and peat moss. Water to keep the soil moist, and place the pot in indirect sunlight.

How to Grow European Spindle Tree From Seed

Stored seed needs 8-12 weeks of warm temperatures followed by 8-16 of cold stratification. Then, seeds should be planted in potting mix, in a small tray or a cold frame, and kept damp. Once the seeds have germinated and are hardy enough to be handled, about a year from starting, plant outside in late spring or early summer.

Common Pests/Diseases

European spindle trees typically have no significant disease or insect problems but can occasionally contract anthracnose, crown gall, leaf spot, mildew, twig blight, and scale. It is particularly attractive to certain aphids.