Ivy — a tree strangler or nurturer?

By Maggie Nelmes

Friday, January 3, 2014


Ivy — a tree strangler or nurturer?

Ivy provides home for insects and food for birds.

NATURE NOTES In late autumn, when deciduous plants are in decline, ivy’s nectar-rich flowers provide sustenance to bees and other insects.

Its leaves feed a number of moth species and in winter its berries are eaten by various species of bird.

Ivy’s leaves and stalks are tough to withstand wintry weather. It creeps over the woodland floor, forming a thick carpet, climbs up tree trunks and spreads along the branches.

As it matures, it grows a chunky stem and thicket of leaves, providing shelter and warmth from rain, wind and freezing temperatures for insects, mammals and birds, and protection from predators.

When I was a child, ivy was demonised for strangling trees and sucking their life blood.  Although its added weight can damage branches, when buffeted by high winds or laden with snow, ivy is not a parasitic plant: its roots do not enter into the tree’s tissues to take its nutrients. It clings tenaciously, but does little harm to a healthy tree.

In ancient Greece and Rome ivy had a better reputation, being used in garlands for both religious and secular occasions.

Its association with Bacchus, or Dionysus, the Greco-Roman god of wine, has a long legacy. In this country branches of ivy tied to a pole placed outside a building indicated that wine and alcohol were on sale.

This was known as the 'sign of the bush’. Ivy’s association with drunkenness may be a reason why it was considered unlucky in the house, except as part of a Christmas decoration, and folklore dictated when to bring evergreens in and when to remove them.

Other traditional uses of ivy in Britain and Ireland include sharpening knives on the tough roots, filtering liquids, such as wine, through the porous wood thinly sliced from the main trunk, using the resin as fish bait and boiled leaves to clean serge cloth.

In the Channel Islands, under the German Occupation, people ate boiled ivy berries. Though moderately toxic when raw, their bitter taste acts as a deterrent.

Ivy has a variety of recorded uses as a herbal remedy in Britain and Ireland. A poultice of boiled leaves was a cure for corns, burns, or back pain and sciatica.

In Derbyshire a gipsy poultice calmed eczema, and in Warwickshire ivy revived dying sheep. Culpeper’s Complete Herbal gives a variety of ailments that potions and lotions made from ivy’s flowers, berries and leaves were believed to cure.

Let’s take a closer look at ivy, starting with the leaves. Glazing protects them from dehydrating and tearing.

Their shape varies, the young leaves having three lobes and mature leaves five. They also vary greatly in size. On the IW the predominant Atlantic ivy subspecies has larger leaves.

The flowers are yellow-green with five small petals, arranged in umbels, or flower-heads, and the berries are greenish-black to dark purple, containing up to five seeds, which ripen from late winter to mid-spring and are dispersed in bird droppings.

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