The spindle – a riot of autumn colour

spindle berries

At this time of year trees and shrubs can provide spectacular displays of autumn colour. This occurs as deciduous trees shut down their systems ahead of the dormant period through the cold and wet of winter. Conifers, however, have adapted their leaves to withstand adverse weather conditions although the European Larch proves the exception, but not before providing a fine display of golden needles which they drop as the weather deteriorates.
Although a commonly planted tree in Britain the larch is absent from the riverside. However, another needle-dropping conifer can be found on the Mill Acre. This is the swamp cypress which provides a fine fiery display in the autumn before dropping its needles. This species comes from the swamps of south-eastern North America where, as the name suggests, it grows in swampy habitats. It requires warm summers to do well so climate change will suit it until the predicted more violent storms uproot it from its watery locations.
At this time of year, the hedgerows that have not been flailed into submission carry a bountiful crop of fruits and berries that will help our birds and mammals through the winter months. Hedgerow shrubs that have not been distinctive through the summer may now command attention through their colours and bountiful fruits. The spindle, which at best only grows to be a small tree, is a master of disguise until it becomes adorned with fiery leaves and deep pink capsules containing four orange-coloured seeds. The whole effect is highly decorative and for this reason, gardens species have been developed, although chancing across a wild spindle out in the countryside at this time of year is a real delight.
It seems almost unimaginable that at the beginning of World War Two, the agricultural ministry was set to send out a directive for the destruction of all spindle shrubs in our countryside. The reason was that they harbour the eggs of the black aphid during the winter. The adults then migrate from the spindle bushes to infect crops of field beans during the growing season by transferring a range of viruses. Those with a vegetable garden or allotment will be familiar with these aphids on their broad beans. However, just before the ministry’s decision was publicised, unrelated research into insects drifting through the air discovered that large numbers of these aphids, assisted by southerly winds, blew across the channel from the continent, so the eradication of the lovely spindle bush would not have resolved the problem.

Adrian Walters, Honorary Freeman and Clerk to the Trustees of the Sudbury Common Lands