A recent walk along the canal towpath reminded me that in writing about canalside flora there was one plant I’d forgotten completely.
I was blinded by its ubiquity.
Found along any towpath, any path for that matter, it weaves through or overwhelms both man-made and natural hurdles, it surges skyward to the tree canopy or snakes horizontally and carpets the ground – it is, of course – Hedera helix (from Ancient Greek to ‘twist or turn’) or common ivy. Old regional common names, no longer used, include Bindwood and Lovestone perfect descriptions of its tendency to cling to and grow over wood, stone or brickwork.
Ivy is the rat of the plant world, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, I’ve a sneaking admiration for the way Common Ivy seems to collonise just about anywhere. It’s a survivor that thrives on just about every soil in every environment, rural or urban or in the edgeland between the two.
Rampant, invasive, clinging, evergreen, it’s a familiar sight in gardens and waste spaces, on house walls or tree trunks and in wild areas across the country.
Common Ivy, given the right conditions can be a giant growing to 20-30m (66-98 ft) high where suitable surfaces – trees, walls & rick faces are available, and can also growing as low lying ground cover where there are no vertical surfaces.
It climbs by means of non-parasitic (in that it does not take food, minerals or water from the host that it grows on) hairy ‘aerial’ rootlets with matted pads which cling strongly to the substrate.
The leaves are alternate, 50–100 mm long, they are of two types, with palmately (palmate – shaped a little bit like a spread hand) three to five-lobed juvenile leaves on creeping and climbing stems, and unlobed, more oval adult leaves on fertile flowering stems exposed to full sun and found high in the crowns of trees or the top of rock faces.
The flowers are produced from late summer until late autumn, individually small, in 3–5 cm diameter umbels, greenish-yellow, and very rich in nectar, an important late autumn food source for bees and other insects. Ground covering ivy rarely flowers.
The fruit are purple-black to orange-yellow berries 6–8 mm diameter, ripening in late winter, and are an important food for many birds, though somewhat poisonous to humans.
There are one to five seeds in each berry, which are dispersed by birds eating the berries.
In ancient Rome, ivy was a symbol of intellectual achievement and ivy wreathes were used to form the poet’s crown, for winners of poetry contests; as well as the wreath of Bacchus, to whom the plant was dedicated, probably because of the practice of binding the brow with Ivy leaves to prevent intoxication, a quality formerly attributed to the plant.
They were also given to victorious athletes in ancient Greece. And, Greek priests presented a wreath of Ivy to newly-married persons. Ivy has throughout the ages been regarded as the emblem of binding fidelity.
The Roman custom of hanging a branch with leaves (often ivy because it was readily available, and the leaves, being evergreen, lasted a long time) on a pole to indicate that the premises sold wine or ale spread throughout Europe in the Middle Ages and became known as an alepole or alestake. In former days. Later, the sign of an Ivy bush, over the door of an inn indicated the excellence of the liquor supplied within…
Ivy was also values medicinally, the leaves and berries were taken orally as an expectorant to treat cough and bronchitis.
In 1597, the British herbalist John Gerard recommended water infused with ivy leaves as a wash for sore or watering eyes, however such advice should be treated with some caution as the leaves can cause severe contact dermatitis in some people.
Culpepper says of ivy: ‘It is an enemy to the nerves and sinews taken inwardly, but most excellent outwardly.’
To remove sunburn it is recommended to smear the face with tender ivy twigs boiled in butter; according to the old English Leechbook of Bald. (Bald’s Leechbook – also known as Medicinale Anglicum – is an Old English medical text probably compiled in the ninth-century, the text survives in only one manuscript: London, British Library).
Van Gogh’s exquisite drawing of ivy in the asylum garden…