Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Ivy is perhaps the most divisive wild plant in the UK. For some, it is a clambering, entwining seducer, a plant of overweening ambition, capable of pulling the mortar out of brickwork and dragginbg the mightiest Oak to the ground. For others it’s the most valuable wildlife plant that you can grow, providing nectar and pollen for bees and butterflies and shiny black berries for the birds.
Firstly, Ivy as strangler.
In the photo above, we can see the ambitious roots grappling with the bark of a Hornbeam as the plant reaches for the sky. Whilst Ivy can exist perfectly happily in a sprawl in dense woodland (and it is one of the few plants that will survive where there is very heavy leaf cover), it is also not averse to clambering upwards when it comes into contact with a suitable support. But unless it finds soil or a deep crevice, Ivy will use the object solely as a climbing frame, and is not a parasite.
The problem comes when the ivy reaches the top of the tree. Here, it will flourish, and, in a windy spot, the sheer weight of growth can be enough to pull the tree over. In Plants Britannica, Richard Mabey quotes a Dorset man who states that, when clearing ivy from a fallen tree, ‘the weight of the ivy often exceeds the weight of its host’.
And yet, I have a sense that something else is going on here. In much plantlore, the bold, straightforward Holly is seen as expressing the male principle, the sinuous, all-encompassing ivy as embodying the female principle . Could some of the hatred of Ivy, of its clinging,nature, be a kind of sublimated misogyny, a fear of fecundity? We are complicated creatures, and our motives are often hidden, even from ourselves.
Ivy has a long connection with alcohol. Because ivy can smother grapevines, it was sometimes seen as being able to cure a hangover through sympathetic magic. Ivy used to be grown over poles as an advertisement for the quality of the wine on sale at a public house – these poles were known as ‘bushes’, hence the phrase ‘good wine needs no bush’. Many pubs, such as the one below, maintain the link with Ivy:
Furthermore, a bowl made of Ivy wood was said to neutralise the effects of drinking bad wine.
Ivy has a long history, also, as a magical plant, particularly with regard to the protection of domestic animals. In Plants Britannica, Richard Mabey tells how, in the Highlands and Islands, it was plaited into a wreath with Rowan and Honeysuckle to protect the cattle. Animals that have been poisoned by eating Yew or Ragwort are said to eat Ivy when they won’t eat anything else. It is said to tempt a sick ewe to eat after a difficult birth, and to cure eye disease in cattle.
One factor in Ivy’s success is its adaptability. It can form a modest sprawl, it can completely cover a building, or it can change its nature completely and become a shrub. Once Ivy flowers, it becomes a blessing for all kinds of insects when other sources of food are long dead.
All these creatures were photographed on one sunny afternoon last week, clustering around the Ivy flowers and filling the air with their buzzing. For the Red Admirals, who hibernate, this last food might make the difference between surviving the winter, and dying.
Ivy is also the larval foodplant of the Holly Blue butterfly, another reason for having some in the garden.So, Ivy is generous, sometimes to a fault. From a little sunshine and a few soil nutrients, she can cover a fence and provide hiding places for the nests of blackbirds, niches for the webs of spiders, and food for all manner of flying things. I find it difficult not to love a plant that so many creatures find useful.
And in one way, I have a link with this plant. Ivy is my middle name, and was given to me to honour my paternal grandmother. She was a tough, tenacious individual, bringing up three children single-handedly after her husband was killed during the Second World War. Like her namesake, she clung on in desperate times, and I hope that, if put to the test, I could summon up the indomitable spirit of my grandmother, and of the plant that we are both named after.