Spot something exotic in a hedgerow while out walking in autumn or winter? Plants that add colour at this time of year are rare. A dash of dark pink and orange is most likely to be a native spindle tree. Wander along the Thicket Path and you'll find several examples. What attracts your attention are the seed pods. The leaves also add to the interest, turning a rich orange-red before dropping in winter.
The plant is valuable to wildlife. Leaves are eaten by several species of moth caterpillars, such as magpie, spindle ermine and scorched carpet. Aphids are attracted to the waxy leaves, in turn bringing hoverflies, ladybirds, lacewings and other insect predators. The tree's summer flowers are green and insignificant, but are a rich source of nectar for bees and the St Mark's Fly. Because of the number of insects attracted, the plant is also a food source for a many birds. Berries are eaten by a variety of animals, including mice and foxes.
Spindle wood is creamy white, hard and dense. In the past it was used for any household item that needed a sharp point, such as spindles, skewers, toothpicks, pegs and knitting needles. The fruits were baked and powdered and used to treat headlice and mange in cattle. Today spindle wood is used to make high quality charcoal for artists. Note that both the leaves and fruit are toxic to humans.