Country Diary: Discovering a tree of beauty in Yedmandale

Spindle tree revealing its shocking-pink berries.
Spindle tree revealing its shocking-pink berries.
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No mist, no wind, above, below,

No living thing strays to and fro,

No bird replies to bird on high,

Cleaving the skies with echoing cry.

By Walter de la Mare

Then – swoosh – a small, dark brown merlin flashed by our car beside a hedgerow on the outskirts of Scarborough. It dashed with more determined flight than other larger falcons. No more than 5ft above the ground it sped, raising alarm calls from a couple of blackbirds. Merlins feed on small birds, grasping their pray in mid-air. Sadly they’re declining as a breeding bird. We were lucky to see one, as they’re a scarce resident in the British Isles. Surprisingly they’re found west of a line from Scarborough to Torquay!

Re-visiting Forge Valley’s bird feeding station, all was quiet apart from the usual variety of tits. Then patience was rewarded, when our long-awaited treecreeper caught Michael’s attention. The delicate-looking bird, brown above and white below is tiny, and rather mouse-like in appearance as it jerkily climbs up a tree trunk. This bird ascended an ash tree, and spiralled behind the trunk, disappearing from view. I caught only a glimpse, as it flitted across a clearing to ascend another tree. Propped on the stiff, pointed tail feathers, it probes crevices in the bark, seeking insects with its down-turned, finely tipped bill. A perfect tool for the job! In winter, treecreepers often join tit flocks, but they don’t visit bird tables.

It’s quite some time since we admired a spindle tree. It has a preference for woods and thickets on limestone.

Spindle is most loved and noticed in autumn for its extraordinary fruits. Our good friend Martin discovered a beauty in the Yedmandale area. He photographed it revealing its shocking-pink berries, with four lobes resembling a flower. As they ripen they reveal perfectly round, pure orange seeds.

Martin showed us his excellent photos. Thankfully he didn’t eat the attractive berries. They are fiercely purgative, and were probably used in folk medicine.

They were also called ‘louseberries’ for obvious reasons. When baked and powdered, they were rubbed into boys’ hair to rid them of lice.

A spindle is of course a wooden spinning stick. For thousands of years before the spinning wheel was invented woollen thread was hand spun with a weighted rod called a spindle. The coarse yarn was tied to the end of the spindle. This was set in motion, spinning to draw out the thread by its own weight.

The trees tough wood was ideal, being heavy, smooth and hard.

Young branches could be cut into spindles requiring little carving. The pale yellow wood, being hard enabled it to be used for toothpicks and skewers. Later it was used for viola bows (viola – of violin family), virginal keys, pegs, knitting needles, and bird cages.