St Nicks

Centre for nature and green living

December 2014: Spotlight on… Ivy

Ivy flowers

Ivy flowers

Its distinctive lobed leaves make Ivy (Hedera helix) one of the most recognisable plants at St Nicks, but there isn’t actually very much of it on the reserve – yet. We’re starting to find young plants here and there, but to see mature specimens you need to take an often muddy little side track from the culvert path to the Sustrans cycleway, where ivy dangles from the trees like jungle creepers.

Ivy leaves

Ivy leaves

Ivy will thrive in virtually any situation and soil type. It needs sunlight to flower and fruit well, but that’s no problem when it can climb any available surface using tight-clinging rootlets along its stems. Once it reaches sunlight, it puts its energy into bushy top-growth and the leaves start to lose their characteristic lobes.

The attractive shape, glossy surface and light-coloured vein patterns of the leaves make ivy useful to gardeners, and there are lots of cultivated varieties with leaf sizes and patterns of variegation to fit any planting scheme. Some of them are derived from the native species, but others have been introduced. All of them have some value to wildlife, but it makes sense to use a native variety – H. helix or the closely related H. hibernica – for wildlife gardening.

Ivy brings a lot of benefits to other species. It flowers from September well into November, providing an invaluable source of pollen and nectar for late-flying insects. The tight clusters of green berries ripen to black in winter, producing a welcome new food supply for birds and small mammals when other sources are starting to run out. Where it grows thickly, it provides winter roosting and spring nesting places for small birds – wrens in particular seem to like the cover – and shelter for a wide range of invertebrates including hibernating butterflies. The holly blue butterfly lays its eggs on holly for the first generation, but uses ivy for the second.

Ivy berries

Ivy berries

In a December Spotlight, an obvious question is why does ivy rank alongside holly as a plant associated with Christmas? One answer is that when decorations were mainly composed of vegetation, it was green and plentiful at the right time of year. In Christian symbolism, the clinging, evergreen ivy can represent enduring faith. But it also goes back to pre-Christian festivals. There is an older version of our Christmas carol based on Celtic tradition, in which holly and ivy represent male and female characteristics respectively. Further back still, the Greek god of wine, Dionysos, and his Roman equivalent Bacchus, are regularly shown wearing an ivy wreath. It’s not clear whether there’s any connection with English folk medicine, which used the berries as a protection against drunkenness, and the leaves as a hangover remedy. We strongly advise against trying this at home, because all parts of the plant contain potentially harmful substances. But the old remedies might explain why including ivy in the Christmas decorations was once said to bring good luck to the women of the household!

Follow this link to find more about how ivy supports pollinating insects:  http://urbanpollinators.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/ivy-hedera-spp-important-food-source.html

Upper Ivy leaves

Upper Ivy leaves

16 December 2014 | Categories: Spotlight on..., Wildwatch | Tags: ivy, spotlight