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Monday, July 16, 2012
THE spindle is one of my favourite native trees, though I admit that when it grows in the wild it’s often more of a shrub than a tree.
It’s principal glory is those extraordinary four-chambered orange/pink fruits in autumn when, on a sunny day, the tree looks as if it has been decorated with fairy lights. Historically, though, its hard, white timber was also highly prized.
The fruits, by the way, are poisonous to humans and livestock, though not to birds, which love them and are the principal means of seed distribution for the species.
It’s not a common tree and is restricted in the wild to areas with very alkaline soils. I’ve found it in low woodlands and old hedgerows in east Galway, north west Clare and on esker ridges in the midlands. But it’s also an ideal garden tree, particularly if it’s pruned to prevent it becoming too shrubby. Because it seldom exceeds six metres in height it suits even quite small gardens. My local tree nursery has bare-root saplings available and I have ordered some to plant this autumn.
The name, of course, refers to the fact that the tough timber was used to make spindles. However it appears it wasn’t the only wood used for this purpose. Archaeologists investigating Lagore crannóg near Dunshaughlin in Co Meath excavated ten spindles. They were made of yew, hazel, an unidentified Prunus species, aspen and ash — there wasn’t a single spindle-wood spindle.
An older name for the species is pegwood. The Rev Charles Johns reported that in the 1800s spindle wood pegs were used by shoe-makers in Dublin.
It was also used to make skewers and tooth-picks and some parts of musical instruments, including violin bows and the keys of virginals. And it is the timber used for the fore-pillar of at least one historical Irish harp —- Donnchadh Mac Tadgh’s harp made for Sir John Fitzgerald of Cloyne. The neck of the harp was yew. The sound box has not survived, but these were normally made of willow.
But I’m not planting spindle trees for any of these utilitarian reasons. I can’t quite put my finger on why I like them so much but my enthusiasm seems to be shared by Dr Oliver Rackham, who is the leading tree guru of the English-speaking world. He describes a discovery on one of his visits to Ireland: "On an island in a boggy lough in Co Offaly is an extraordinary wood of great, ancient oaks, hung with ancient ivies (one ivy trunk is thicker than a fat man); it has the largest hazel and the largest spindle tree I have ever seen . . . I hesitate to claim it as a wildwood, although it is full of fallen giants; but it tells us what the derries may have been like."
If you know where wild spindle is growing and you prefer to propagate it yourself, rather than buying from a nursery or garden centre you should gather the fruits in the autumn, rub them gently together to remove the outer orange coat and sow immediately into containers of compost, covering them with a thin layer of coarse sand. Leave the containers in a shaded place outdoors over winter.
You can take cuttings in September and October. Insert them into a peat-sand mixture and leave them to root in a cold frame or in a pot with a clear plastic bag over it. By the following spring most of the cuttings can be potted on or planted out.
You should end up with elegant little trees that will be a focal point in early autumn when the fruits appear.
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