The Storied Ivy

That headlong ivy! Not a leaf will grow
But thinking of a wreath…….

Elizabeth Barrett Browning  Aurora Leigh, 1856

ivy trimmer

I doubt the folks who designed this hedge trimmer ever envisioned such a usage, but it works like a charm nonetheless!

Looking for a task that was not too trying in yesterday’s 90º heat, I decided to trim the ivy that had started to completely cover the path from the back arbor. Historically this was something of a sweaty pain, one that required a good half hour or so on bended knee with clippers in hand – that is until I discovered one of the handiest tools in my garden, the little cordless B & D hedge trimmer, which neatly edges the entire 50’ length in about 1 minute. A quick rake, and I’m done. The only real problem I have now is throwing away the clippings, because with each sprig, I’m tossing out a bit of history.

You see, my ivy isn’t just any ivy: it has a very impressive pedigree. Many years ago, when I was researching my first book, The New Traditional Garden, I was given a guided tour of “Sunnyside,” the home of Washington Irving on the Hudson. Everywhere in his garden were luxuriant growths of ivy, which immediately caught the attention of someone like me who grew up in Wisconsin where ivy isn’t hardy. I remember remarking to one of the curators how pretty I thought the neatly trimmed beds were. “Oh,” she said, “it’s a bit of a chore keeping them in check, but they do look nice when they’re done. Speaking of which, would you like a few cuttings for your own house? I think Washington Irving would approve: He himself received the original sprigs from Sir. Walter Scott.”  And so my visit ended with three pieces of ivy carefully wrapped in wet paper towel. It was a near thing getting the ivy home, as this was at start of a three week long trip, and several times the ivy was almost crushed, lost or tossed, but eventually the slightly battered sprigs made it back to my garden, where one eventually rooted – the single progenitor of what is now a huge bed.

english ivy

English Ivy

But this literary association isn’t my only fascination with ivy; I continue to be bowled over by the incredible amount of lore associated with the plant. Ivy was for instance, historically associated with, of all things, wine. It was ivy that the wine soaked followers of the Roman god, Bacchus, wore during their winter rites, decking themselves and the god with ivy garlands. (Summer garb, appropriately enough, was decorated with grape leaves.) In fact, so familiar and long running was this relationship between ivy and wine that until the 1700’s many British pubs were distinguished only by a bush of ivy to advertise their presence. A cup made of ivy wood was said to be able to detect adulterated wine (more on this strange phenomenon of “ivy wood” shortly) Drinking from these ivy cups was also said to be curative of a number of illnesses, especially whooping cough. (All that wine may have also played no small role in these supposed “cures”.) Eating the plant directly, which is today known to be dangerous, was formerly believed to be beneficial for numerous ailments. In fact, so various where the proscribed medical uses for the plant, that as the garden historian Alice Coats wryly notes, the number of potential cures suggested “experiment rather than experience… one cannot avoid the suspicion that ivy was so much used simply because it was always in hand.” Conversely, in the nineteenth century ivy became associated with death and decay, probably because of its uncanny ability to climb over and instantly age any kind of ruin. As Dickens notes in The Pickwick Papers “For the stateliest building a man can raise is the ivy’s food at last.”

The myths of ivy extend even to its origins, both etymological and botanical. Supposedly, the word ivy may derive from the old English ifig, itself a corruption of the old English iw, meaning green, a base which also gives us the word “yew”, but this etymology is rather shaky. The Latin name, hedera may derive from the Celtic, haedra, a cord; this makes some sense at least, given the Celtic Druids reverence for the plant, and its inclusion in their religious rites. (Remember that carol The Holly and the Ivy? Its one of the most ancient on record and full of thinly Christianized Druidic imagery.) Botanically, while its obvious that many of the hundreds of ivies found in cultivation today are descended in one way or another from H. helix, the English Ivy; others are the products from numerous crosses, both deliberate and accidental, between other species such as H. chrysocarpa, Italian ivy; H. colchica, Caucasian Ivy, and H. hibernica, the Irish Ivy.

variegated ivy

Variegated ivies like this one are much less hardy than their English cousins – and thus much easier to control in warmer climates.

Part of the ancients’ reverence for ivy may have to do with its bizarre habit, which to my knowledge is unique in the plant kingdom, of undergoing a fascinating biological change – hence my previous allusion to “ivy wood.” Those of you who are familiar with ivy from more northerly climes may wonder how those tiny thin vines could ever be called wood, never having seen a fully grown ivy plant – the winters there are simply to severe to allow it the ivy to fully mature. Gardeners in milder climes, however, are more than familiar with the ivy’s habit (some might be tempted to apply the word “pernicious” to this propensity) of ascending twenty, thirty, often forty feet into the tops of trees by means of little hairy rootlets that attach to anything rough. As the ivy reaches the crown, a strange thing happens – the vines undergo a change, becoming a quasi tree. In this arborescent form, the leaves, which previously were triangular and pointed, become rounded; the vines themselves thicken massively into trunks, the plant flowers (with greenish yellow blooms) and produces berries which are the delight of birds (and of course, help spread new little ivy plants everywhere.) Interestingly, when cuttings are taken from these metamorphosed versions, they don’t revert to vines; instead the cuttings will form bushes or small trees, whence comes  “ivy wood.”

Ivy’s habit of climbing trees has caused a great storm of debate amongst gardeners for centuries, which continues to wage on an off to the present day: Is, or is not, ivy harmful to the things it climbs upon? The best answer, (as is often the case in gardening) is: “it depends.” Ivy is categorically not a parasite and does not receive nourishment from the plants it climbs upon. You can prove this to yourself by severing the end of any vine: the leaves will immediately begin to wither and die, as the tip can no longer draw sustenance from the main stem. However, in climates where ivy can fully mature, the massive weight of the thickened vines, especially in older or diseased trees, plus the tendency of such dense evergreen foliage to act as a giant sail, may be enough to cause the whole mass – tree and ivy both – to come crashing to the ground in high winds. (This is not a problem in New England where winters check this kind of growth, but in the South and Northwest, ivy can quickly become invasive.) Likewise, opinions are divided on ivy’s role in causing decay when climbing on masonry; some masons I know insist that the small rootlets work their way into the mortar and cause the pointing to crumble. Others argue that the roots only adhere to the very tops surfaces, and far from causing the mortar to decay, the shade from rain and sun provided by the leaves actually helps to preserve the bricks and mortar from natural decay; it’s the process of periodically ripping down and removing ivy from where it is not wanted that serves to loosen the pointing. You’ll have to decide. Personally, having been ivy-starved in my youth, I am happy wherever ivy grows in my garden, its cheerful verdant leaves an evergreen reminder of a long and storied past.



The Storied Ivy — 1 Comment

  1. What an informative post! I feel like I just read a wikipedia entry, which you should take as a compliment. 🙂 Who knew Ivy was all that and then some? But could you please clarify the wine detection properties of ivy? You touched on it, but didn’t expound. Thanks!

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