Evergreen Ivy

Ivy covers these trees in a county park near Jamestown, VA.

Ivy covers these trees in a county park near Jamestown, VA.

Ivy, Hedera, is another evergreen plant with long associations to Christmas and Winter Solstice celebrations.  There are many varieties of ivy native to Europe and North Africa, and eastwards across Asia to China and Japan.  Because it lives on and on, and is such a tough and sturdy plant; it has been associated with the gods Osiris in Egypt, and with Dionysus in Greece.  Many legends and magical beliefs have grown up around ivy.

Ivy growing up the trunk of a mature Beech tree in our garden.

Ivy growing up the trunk of a mature Beech tree in our garden.

Ivy has been used as Solstice, Saturnalia, and Christmas decorations in homes for millennia.  Wreathes made of ivy were worn on the head during ancient times.  Ivy is associated with close friendships, and was used along with mistletoe and other evergreen plants in “kissing balls.”  Ivy was also used, along with other evergreens, for decorations at funerals.

Ivy was even believed to be an antidote to too much wine!  It has been wrapped into wreathes and grown in pots and gardens for its delicate beauty, especially during the winter.  Mature ivy grown in sufficient sun blooms in late autumn.  The berries ripen in early spring.  This makes it an important food source for wild life, as well as a sturdy shelter for insects and small birds.

Ivy is a very refined, woody, evergreen ornamental vine.  Purchased in garden centers, it is available in a variety of leaf shapes and colors.  Keep in mind, “the first year it sleeps, the second year it creeps, then the third year, it leaps!”  If you want to use it as a ground cover, or to grow over a wall or other structure, patience is required.  If you need to keep it in bounds, prune ruthlessly.  Each of the pieces you prune off has the potential to root and grow into a new plant.  All of the leaf nodes below the pruning cut will activate and send out new shoots on the parent plant.

Birds spread ivy seeds, and so it can spring up far away from anyone’s garden. 

Ivy grows here as groundcover under the holly, and begins to climb the fence at Colonial Williamsburg.

Ivy grows here as ground cover under the holly, and begins to climb the fence at Colonial Williamsburg.

Because it roots easily at any leaf node, it is easily spread around.  Once rooted in the ground, it can cover large areas of ground and cover large trees.  Ivy is a useful ground cover as it chokes out weeds and halts erosion.  It is beautiful grown on banks and in small yards impractical to mow.  It can eventually break down masonry when allowed to grow on walls, and can weaken an otherwise healthy tree after many years of unchecked growth.

Since ivy species aren’t native to any part of the United States, it can become an invasive plant.  Especially in woodlands, where it isn’t pruned or controlled, it can eventually choke out other plants.  Many native plant purists will deliver a sermonette, given an opening, on the evils of ivy.  Many discourage garden centers from carrying it, and consumers from buying and planting it.

Ivy as ground cover around this pot.

Ivy as ground cover around this pot.

I happen to like ivy and often add it to plantings to drape and soften the edges of a container.  It is naturalized in this area and makes an attractive ground cover.  It grows gracefully up the trunks of trees, and produces berries enjoyed by birds.  It is good cover for small creatures, and helps hold moisture.  Ivy prefers to grow in the shade, but can take sun.  The variegated and small leaved varieties are especially beautiful in ornamental plantings.

Ivy is an excellent choice to grow indoors in pots in the winter since it thrives in shade.  Likewise, it is an excellent choice in outdoor potted arrangements since it stands up to winter cold and keeps its color and shape.  Ivy is easily trained onto supports to grow as topiary.  It can be trained around a wire or orb made of wire to grow in the shape of a wreath, a globe, a heart, or most any other shape.  It also will cover a chicken wire form, filled with damp sphagnum moss, to form a solid topiary, like a little tree.  Simply tuck the ends into the form as the vines grow, and trim as necessary.

Ivy is an excellent ground cover on a hill, or wherever it is difficult to mow.

Ivy is an excellent ground cover on a hill, or wherever it is difficult to mow.

Ivy makes a beautiful living wreath.  Buy ivy in small pots, or use ivy cuttings which already have roots attached.  The wire wreath, filled with sphagnum, must be kept moist to support the ivy.  Tuck the rooted cuttings into the middle of the sphagnum moss, with some potting soil, and wrap the ivy around the wreath form.  Using two or three different varieties of ivy can give a striped effect.

A well known English Christmas carol, The Holly and the Ivy, relates these plants to the birth of Jesus.  It is patterned after much older European songs about these two plants.  In ancient lore, holly was considered a masculine plant, and ivy the feminine.  These songs were often about the rivalry, relationships, and relative strength between men and women.  Here is one of the many old songs about ivy.  This one dates to the 15th Century, if not before.

The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly

Nay, Ivy, nay, it shall not be, I wis,
Let Holly have the mastery as the manner is.

1. Holly standeth in the hall fair to behold,
Ivy stands without the door; she is full sore a cold.
Nay, Ivy, nay, it shall not be, I wis,
Let Holly have the mastery as the manner is.

2. Holly and his merry men, they dancen and they sing;
Ivy and her maidens, they weepen and they wring.
Nay, Ivy, nay, it shall not be, I wis,
Let Holly have the mastery as the manner is.

3. Ivy hath a lybe, she caught it with the cold,
So may they all have, that with Ivy hold.
Nay, Ivy, nay, it shall not be, I wis,
Let Holly have the mastery as the manner is.

4. Holly hath berries, as red as any rose,
The foresters, the hunters, keep them from the does.
Nay, Ivy, nay, it shall not be, I wis,
Let Holly have the mastery as the manner is.

5. Ivy hath berries as black as any sloe,
There come the owl and eat them as she go.
Nay, Ivy, nay, it shall not be, I wis,
Let Holly have the mastery as the manner is.

6. Holly hath birds a full fair flock,
The nightingale, the poppinjay, the gentle laverock.
Nay, Ivy, nay, it shall not be, I wis,
Let Holly have the mastery as the manner is.

7. Good Ivy, [good Ivy,] what birds hast thou,
None but the owlet that cries How! How!
Nay, Ivy, nay, it shall not be, I wis,
Let Holly have the mastery as the manner is.

From, William Henry Husk, Songs of the Nativity.

More information at The Hymns and Carols of Christmas  

August 13 2013 vines 021

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

3 responses to “Evergreen Ivy

  1. Fascinating post! I love ivy too. It is a most graceful and romantic thing, climbing uo trellises and old stone walls. And it stays green in winter – I love anything that will do that.

  2. Pingback: Vine Covered Trees | Forest Garden

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