Ivy is the archetypal climbing plant, widespread throughout the national territory. It is highly resilient and, under the right conditions, easy to cultivate. In the garden, it lends itself to various ornamental uses, as it can cover extensive surfaces in just a few years. Moreover, it has unique characteristics that are worth exploring. For example, due to its late flowering, it is much appreciated by bees and other pollinating insects. This plant also holds great symbolic value in Greek mythology. Finally, it has numerous medicinal properties, although its use in household preparations is discouraged because its parts contain toxic components. Therefore, it needs to be processed in herbalism.
With these premises, let’s get to know the english ivy plant better, its characteristics, and how to cultivate it in the garden in the best way.
Mythology and the Ivy Plant
Common ivy (Hedera helix) is an evergreen plant belonging to the family Araliaceae, genus Hedera.
The etymology of the name dates back to the Latin term hadaéreo = to cling, which reflects its ability to adhere to the surface of other plants. In Greek, ivy is called Kissós, one of the names by which Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy, is known. Legend has it that the ivy plant appeared on Earth at his birth to protect him with its vegetation. To confirm this, Dionysus, known as Bacchus to the Romans, is depicted with a crown of ivy encircling his head. For ancient peoples, this plant was also a symbol of the passion that drives lovers to unite in an eternal embrace.
Botanical Characteristics of Ivy
Common ivy is a lianoid plant, meaning it cannot support itself. For this reason, it takes on a climbing or creeping habit. The plant consists of numerous twining stems that produce adventitious roots, which adhere to surfaces. These roots are produced at the nodes of the branches and also serve to anchor the plant to the ground. The ivy’s stems are initially herbaceous, but over time, they become semi-woody. When young, they have smooth and glabrous bark of dark green color, but as they age, they become rough, with a grayish bark. Ivy tends to grow upwards, but if it doesn’t find proper support, it will crawl on the ground. This is why it’s considered parasitic, capable of extracting the sap from the plants it grows on. However, this belief is incorrect, as the adventitious roots only serve as support and do not extract sap, such as from a tree trunk.
The problems ivy can cause for other plants are related to excessive coverage, which reduces the absorption of sunlight and, therefore, photosynthesis.
Ivy’s leaves are scattered on its canopy. They are persistent and leathery with smooth margins. When mature, they are dark green, but in their youth, they are lighter. They have distinct white veins and are shiny on the upper side with petioles.
Upon close examination, you’ll notice that the leaves have different shapes. This phenomenon is called heterophylly or leaf dimorphism. Their diversity is due to genetic characteristics but also to different exposure. The leaves on lower branches are typically in the shade, whether they climb or creep. They typically have the typical palmate-lobed shape. In higher branches, those more exposed to the sun and bearing flowers, you find heart-shaped leaves (ovate-rhomboid). This makes ivy a unique plant in its kind, with high ornamental value. Botanically, common ivy should not be confused with Irish ivy, Hedera hibernica, a species now also found in Italy. The latter can be distinguished from the former because its leaves are usually larger and lack the typical white veins.
Flowers, Blooming, and Fruits
Ivy flowers are clustered in umbels at the tips of flowering branches. Each inflorescence consists of around twenty small yellow-greenish flowers. The flowering period is crucial for ecosystem balance. It is one of the last plants to bloom, from October onward, in the midst of autumn. The flowers are rich in nectar and pollen, which is why they are heavily foraged by bees and other pollinators. Ivy can also produce monofloral honey, although this practice is not widespread in beekeeping due to the honey’s rapid crystallization. Beekeepers often prefer to leave the honey inside the beehive as a useful food store for the colony. Another peculiarity of ivy’s flowering is that it usually begins when the plant is already mature. The fruits are small ovoid drupes that form in early spring. The berries start green, then turn reddish, and finally black.
How to Cultivate Ivy in the Garden
Cultivating ivy in the garden can be an excellent solution for covering large surfaces, both vertically and horizontally. It can be used to cover a boundary railing, balcony grates, or even a flowerbed. Ivy also grows well on walls, which are often dull and unattractive. Some adventurous gardeners use it to entirely cover houses. It is a plant that thrives in damp and shaded areas, so this should be considered when choosing the initial location. Dry and excessively sunny areas should be avoided. In terms of temperature, it withstands both summer and winter well. From direct experience, we can tell you that once it’s mature, it doesn’t suffer from frost, a risk it faces in its early years of life. It is a hardy plant with no specific requirements regarding the type of soil; the important thing is that it is cool and deep enough. Irrigation is crucial only in summer and during the plant’s early years. It should not be allowed to dry out during the heat, but once it has passed the juvenile phase, it can manage quite well on its own. In short, when ivy takes root, it is one of the strongest plants in nature, at least in our latitudes.
Reproduction of Ivy
Ivy is usually propagated by cuttings, and the process is straightforward. We have already discussed this method when talking about rosemary. Regarding ivy, there are two optimal periods for this operation: autumn and early spring.
Propagation by cuttings involves taking a stem from the plant that has already developed adventitious roots. This stem should be cleaned of leaves at the bottom and placed in a pot with common soil (like this one) and sand to improve drainage. The cutting should be placed in a cool place, and the soil should always be kept moist. After about 2-3 weeks, new shoots will appear, indicating a successful operation. Let it root a little longer, and then transplant it into the ground.
A frequent operation when you have ivy in the garden is pruning. If left to proliferate freely, the plant can escape control and create problems. Therefore, trimming the stems aims to contain its expansion, as well as to give it the desired appearance. Ivy pruning should be done in late winter, preferably in early March.
Properties and Herbal Uses
As mentioned, ivy is toxic to humans, and this toxicity applies to all its parts. At the same time, it has many beneficial properties. The toxicity comes from the high content of saponins, including hederin. Other constituents of this plant include essential oil, some steroids, flavonoids like rutin, glucosides, alkaloids (emetine), caffeic and chlorogenic acids, minerals, and calcium oxalate. These elements, combined, give common ivy antibacterial, analgesic, expectorant, mucolytic phlegm-thinning, antispasmodic, antipyretic, and vasoconstrictive properties. Internal use is indicated for gout, rheumatic pain, whooping cough, and bronchitis. For external use, it is one of the best plants against cellulite imperfections (a good product can be found here). Due to these properties, it is often used both in herbal medicine and in cosmetics.