Although the winter winds have now stripped the oak trees of their golden crowns, there is still colour in the hedgerows which line the ancient lanes around Little Trewern. Holly thrives in this upland landscape, with tiers of red berries now cascading from the tall boughs. But one tree – with its orange and red fruits – stands out from all the rest. It is the Spindle Tree, glowing like some strange exotic plant in the hedgerows along these English country lanes.
The Spindle Tree is so named because its smooth straight wood was used for making spindles for spinning wool, in the days before spinning wheels revolutionised this domestic industry. In French, we know the Spindle as the bois carré, or “square wood”. It seems that it was also used for making knitting needles, so that in ancient times the Spindle tree provided the means to spin a woolen yarn, the dye for making a yellow cloth, and the tool to knit it into textiles. My mother Myfanwy was a skilled spinner and weaver, but like all “modern” Welsh women, she sat at a spinning wheel and worked with a loom!
A little research also tells me that in Greek mythology, the tree is thought to be the creation of Euonyme, the mother of the Furies, for its fruits are poisonous, and the juice from the berries was often used to poison the tips of arrows.
In the Middle Ages, an early flowering of the Spindle Tree was believed to signify an outbreak of the plague. I’m not sure if the Spindle has flowered early this year, but another source tells me that carrying a sprig of the tree will protect me from its scourge!
So perhaps, this year, just to be sure, we will add a sprig of the Service tree to our traditional Christmas wreaths!