Ivy Vines: A Nice Choice November 29, 2015

Ivy-VinesMaybe because I grew up in the wilds of frozen Wisconsin, where ivy is generally not hardy outdoors, one of my greatest December delights here in Massachusetts has become watching the season’s first snowflakes gently fall onto the bed of ivy outside my office window. The ivy’s deep-green leaves catch and hold the white flakes as they drop, and though a moderate covering of snow will bury the vines completely for a while, when the weather warms, the pointed leaves will patiently reemerge, trumpeting a message dear to every gardener’s heart: “Worry not! Winter hasn’t conquered all; as I am still green, spring will indeed return!”

This same cheerful resiliency has made ivy one of the most beloved, and talked about, plants in Western gardens; the legends that surround ivy are legion. A mere sampling of ivy lore: Ivy was for centuries associated with wine. The wine-besotted followers of the Roman god Bacchus wore ivy during their winter rites, decking themselves and the god’s likeness out in ivy garlands. (Summer garb, appropriately enough, changed to grape leaves.) In fact, the relationship between ivy and wine was so familiar and long running that until the 1700s many a British pub advertised itself merely by means of a bush of ivy placed out front.

Similarly, it was said that one could detect adulterated wine by drinking it from a cup made of ivy wood (more on “ivy wood” shortly). Drinking from these ivy cups was also said to cure any number of illnesses, especially whooping cough. (Imbibing a lot of wine may have played no small role in these supposed cures!) In fact, so various were the prescribed medicinal uses for the plant that, as garden historian Alice Coats wryly put it, 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 19th 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 Charles Dickens noted in Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club: “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. The word ivy derives from Old English ifig, itself possibly related to Old English iw, meaning “yew.” Ivy’s Latin name, hedera, may derive from the Celtic word for “cord”; this makes some sense at least, given the Druids’ reverence for the plant and its inclusion in their religious rites.

Botanically, and not a little confusingly, nearly all ivies found in cultivation today are “sports,” accidental modifications or mutations derived from Hedera helix, English, or common, ivy. The other one percent come from H. algeriensis (Algerian ivy, often labeled H. canariensis), H. colchica (Persian ivy), and H. hibernica, Atlantic ivy, whose cultivar H. hibernica ‘Hibernica’ (Irish ivy) is most commonly sold commercially in the United States as English ivy. And as Dr. Sabina Mueller Sulgrove, a botanist with the American Ivy Society and the international registrar of Hedera, points out, botanical labels axe currently being reclassified, adding still further to the gardener’s confusion.

Part of the ancients’ reverence for ivy may have had to do with its bizarre habit of undergoing a fascinating biological change when it gets the chance to fully mature–hence the allusion earlier to “ivy wood.” Gardeners in milder climes are more than familiar with the fully mature ivy’s habit (some may say pernicious penchant) of ascending 20, 30, often 40 feet into the tops of trees, where a strange thing happens: When the vines can climb no farther, they undergo a change, becoming a quasi tree. In this adult, or arborescent, form, the leaves, which previously were five-lobed and pointed, become elliptical and lose their lobes; the vines themselves thicken into upright stems, and the plant flowers (with greenish-yellow blooms) and produces berries that are the delight of birds (and, of course, help spread new ivy plants). When cuttings are taken from these metamorphosed versions and planted, the plants that grow from the cuttings don’t revert to vines; rather, they will form bushes or small trees, whence “i vy wood.”

Ivy’s habit of climbing trees has caused a great storm of debate among gardeners for centuries, a dispute that echoes down to the present day: Is, or is nor, ivy harmful to the things it climbs on? The best answer (as is often the case in gardening) is: “It depends.” Ivy is categorically not a parasite and does not take nourishment from the plants it climbs. Sever the end of any vine: The leaves will 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 if it is climbing up diseased or dying trees, may be enough to cause the whole mass–tree and ivy both–to come crashing to theĀ  ground. Opinions are likewise divided on ivy’s role in causing decay when climbing masonry. Some masons I know insist that the rootlets work their way into the mortar and cause the pointing to crumble. Others argue that the rootlets only adhere to the surface, and far from causing the mortar to decay, the shield from rain and shade from sunlight 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 for yourself. Personally, I am happy to see it wherever it will grow outdoors.

And grow ivy most certainly will, as long as you are south of Zone 5 and give it a modicum of water and shelter until it gets established. Outdoors, ivy is rarely troubled by pests; indoors, red spider mite can sometimes be a problem, but is easily controlled. So this December, if you find yourself ivyless, follow in the footsteps of your gardening ancestors: Sally forth and deck your halls, and your grounds, with some ivy. If nothing else, the next time you’re tempted to raise a glass to Bacchus, you’ll never lack for a winter wreath.

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