Whether twining over a panther-drawn chariot or feeding an exclusive species of bee, ivy, a dominant Christmas evergreen, has virtues we should all celebrate, says Steven Desmond.
Everyone knows ivy. It spreads through woods, climbs walls with surprising facility and is equally at home in utter dusty gloom or brilliant sunshine. Some people dislike or fear it, believing it to be a harbinger of doom, but it takes no notice and continues on its silent way. Surely it will still be here, steadily covering the rubble, when we are gone?
This deep-seated idea of ivy’s mysterious power goes far back into recorded history and beyond it. The god Dionysus, or Bacchus if you prefer, is known to us all as the god of vines and wine, but ivy is one of his key attributes. His chariot, drawn by panthers, is bedecked not only with vine leaves, but also with ivy.
He wears a crown of ivy, not grapevine, in his curly hair and his great wand of authority, the thyrsus, is a rod of giant fennel tipped with a pine cone, decorated with a neatly tied ribbon and covered along its considerable length with ivy. As if the allegory was as yet unclear, it also drips perpetually with honey. My eyes are watering just thinking about it.
Mortal Romans were equally enamoured of ivy. Pliny the Younger, the only ancient Roman to have left us a description of his own garden, described with pleasure the plane trees that framed part of the layout. Ivy was carefully trained by the gardener up the trunks of these trees and stretched in swags between each of them, in just the way the poet Virgil describes grapevines trained between elm trees down the middle of farmers’ fields.
There is clearly a deep-seated connection between these two unrelated plants in the ancient mind. Both are climbers and there is a broad similarity between the leaf shapes, but just as the grapevine’s fruit is harvested and it loses its leaves, the ivy carries on unchanged and, indeed, soon flowers and produces its own dark fruit defiantly into midwinter. Perhaps it was seen as a sort of emblem, a lasting shadow of the vine, reminding us that all will come right again in the far-distant spring.
The plant itself is so familiar as to seem hardly worth describing, but that is part of its subtle and distinctive character. There are perhaps a dozen species of ivy, all in the genus Hedera and all native to the Northern Hemisphere. Our own Hedera helix is found all over Europe. There are magnificent variants elsewhere, such as H. hibernica, the Irish ivy, now recognised as a distinct species. It was a favourite in Victorian gardens, especially for edging flowerbeds.
William Robinson, himself an Irish expatriate, thought the black railings of town gardens would be greatly enlivened by following the Parisian practice of encouraging ivy to grow over them to form a shiny green hedge. Some readers will, like me, recall the ‘fedge’ of ivy that once framed the setting of the Palm House at Kew. It was an object of beauty in its own right.
Ivy is, of course, only too willing to shoot up a wall and can look singularly lovely there. There is no shortage of decorative forms to choose from. Buttercup, a cultivar whose youngest leaves are bright yellow, always looks a delight against a brick wall. Of course, people worry that it will destroy the wall. Certainly, it needs an annual haircut – which involves climbing a ladder and carefully peeling back and cutting off the new shoots to a workable upper limit – but that’s all.
If things are left to get out of hand, however, that’s just what will happen. Those clinging strips of root will indeed pull out loose mortar. Some years ago, the famous Jealous Wall at Belvedere in rural Ireland came to be repaired and a vast quantity of ivy was pulled off the wall as a bold start. Naturally, quite a lot of the wall came with it and had to be laboriously put back up again. Best proceed with caution.
Having dealt with some of the fears, perhaps we should dwell on more positive aspects of ivy to cheer ourselves up. Chief among these is its remarkable habit of flowering and fruiting after just about everything else has packed it in for the year. Ivy comes into flower in September and continues into November. It does this when it reaches the top of, say, a wall, when its leaves change shape, losing their lobes, and become larger and the whole format begins to resemble a free-standing shrub. The flowers, creamy-white and blotting-paper matte, are richly honey scented. This famously attracts bees.
It’s one of the pleasures of walking in the autumn countryside on a still, sunny day – of which there are many – and becoming aware of the vigorous humming sound emanating from a hedgerow ivy bush in flower. The visible pleasure of the industrious bees gathering the precious nectar can only generate the same sentiment in ourselves, especially now that we’ve suddenly realised the importance of such things.
We should rejoice, therefore, in the recent establishment in this country of the ivy bee. This Continental species was first recorded in Britain in 2001 and is now found widely across the southern half of England. It lives in lawns, causing no one any bother and is, you will be pleased to learn, not only a mining bee, but also a plasterer bee. What could be more useful?
It obtains its nectar exclusively from ivy flowers and therefore is only to be seen flying about at the relevant time of year. It operates in large swarms, harmless to humans, of orange-and-black stripy insects that become gradually paler with age, as do we all. Now there’s a good-news story and one that might stay your vigorous hand before you rip out the offending climber.
The unconventional nature of ivy, bearing its perpetual leaves and its sombre charcoal berries, makes it a natural candidate for Christmas significance. We have but few native evergreens in Britain, so their live appearance in midwinter has always invested them with special meaning. Holly has always dominated the field, but we all sing of the holly and the ivy.
The latter may always be fated to be the bridesmaid, hovering shyly in the background, but bridesmaids also are widely admired and speeches made in their favour. Long may this continue for ivy, a plant of lasting fame!
Find out which pendulous plants go in hanging baskets and how to fit them in.
Follow out step-by-step guide to making a garlanded willow wreath.
The best Christmas decorations to grab for your tree or your presents, and the best wreaths to buy