On my daily walk yesterday, I noticed ivy in full bloom, lighting up the hedgerows on a dull and misty day. The greenish-yellow blooms provide lots of nectar, allowing them to be pollinated by wasps and flies. The black berries then develop and these provide food for the birds during the winter; they are particularly enjoyed as the hard frosts deny other food sources to a variety of birds.
One of the enduring disputes about the ivy is whether or not it is harmful to walls or trees. Country folk would stubbornly remove every scrap of ivy from their trees, believing it would sap their strength and eventually kill them. Similarly, other people thought that ivy ruined stone and brick walls - and so it can, not by draining the goodness from the stones but by its shoots and roots finding crevices in which they may flourish and expand to eventually cause damage. The tiny suckers by which the ivy clings to the wall will do no harm, however, nor will they harm trees to which they cling; a moderate amount of ivy will not strangle a tree, for it will merely use it as a support. If the covering of ivy is allowed to grow too profusely, however, its sheer weight could result in the collapse of its host tree, and, of course, it could also smother the young shoots. Allowing just the right amount is not easy - which is why most gardeners remove any hint of ivy from their trees.
So far as houses are concerned, a covering of ivy upon the walls has always been considered a good thing, with the ivy itself being regarded as a kind and useful plant. There is little doubt that a thick covering helps to retain the heat of a building while protecting the stonework from the worst of the weather; it also provides a nesting site for birds and places for them to roost at night, but such a coat of ivy does need to be kept trimmed to prevent it finding its way into cracks, crevices, gutters and window frames.
And if there is a structural weakness such as a tiny piece of missing mortar, the ivy will find and exploit it.
I like the story of a stubborn ivy which worked its way through a wall of Magdalen College, Oxford and found itself in the wine cellar. Undisturbed over a period of time, it made its way towards a bottle of port and succeeded in penetrating the cork. Having achieved this, it then drank the entire contents and, when it was discovered, it had rooted itself inside the bottle. I'm sure this would be an extremely happy and very healthy ivy, but I do not know what happened to it once this adventure came to an end. I would imagine it would have been banned from visiting the cellar!
In the past, ivy on a house was regarded as a sign of good fortune, and when we believed in the power of witches and evil spirits, it was supposed to keep them at bay. If the ivy suddenly died or fell away from the house, however, this was a sign that the house would shortly have new occupants, or that the present occupants would have to tolerate some bad fortune or illness. A good, healthy stock of ivy was therefore regarded as a sign of one's enduring good fortune, particularly so far as women were concerned. Ivy is a symbol of feminism and fertility which might explain why so many old country cottages abound with this plant.
It was also widely used as a cure for a range of ailments. Ivy leaves soaked in vinegar were supposed to cure corns if they were tied over them, and a wreath of ivy leaves worn on the head was considered a wonderful means of preventing hair loss. If ivy leaves were soaked overnight in cold water, the water was then thought to ease tired and sore eyes and in some areas, skin rashes were also given that treatment while the juice of the leaves was thought to stop a running nose. Whooping cough was thought to be cured by eating one's food from a bowl made from the wood of a stout ivy trunk, and some thought that wine could be safely kept in such a bowl. In some places, it was thought that the bowl must be made from wood harvested at night when the moon was in a particular phase.
However, I hasten to add a word of caution as all parts of the ivy plant are somewhat poisonous and some of us may be intolerant of ivy as a medicinal remedy. My wife can testify to this as she had a nasty reaction after contact with ivy when she was removing a lot of vigorous growth from a garden wall. She suffered severe skin irritation to her hands, arms and face. Though I wouldn’t recommend eating either the berries, I understand it is only toxic if large quantities consumed.
On a lighter note, ivy is one of those evergreens we can bring into the house over the Christmas period. Apparently it keeps goblins at bay!
Posted by Peter N. Walker @ 10:13 AM GMT [Link]