Let’s hear it for ivy!

 In Climbing and Wall Plants, Ground cover plants, Low maintenance gardening, Plant Focus
an ivy covered wall

Hedera colchica Sulphur Heart covering a wall

Let’s hear it for ivy but first –

Some background info

Ivy is a much maligned garden plant. Builders hate it and think [wrongly] that it pulls buildings down. It all too often gets a bad press!

In my view this is entirely unjustified in all but a few extreme cases.

Recently I was forced to intervene on a Facebook plantgeek’s forum and stand up for ivy! You see I am an admin for this site and it has well over six thousand members all over the world.

Poor old English ivy – the ivy that grows in our woods here – was getting a hard time from North American plant enthusiasts. They were lambasting the poor thing!

Now out there on the west coast of USA it is a menace and, as is so often the case, it was introduced to gardens and then duly escaped.

This is when the trouble began as our green and pleasant ivy is now smothering all the lovely native flora. This is having an adverse knock-on effect on the whole ecosystem. And the result is that large amounts of money and effort are needed to remove the ivy wherever it is found.

The UK situation

You’re probably thinking that we should do the same here but wait a minute!

Before you do, just consider all the wildlife that is dependent on green [and variegated] ivy here in Britain!

I would go as far as to say that as far as wildlife goes it is one of the most important plants that we could grow!

Why is it so important for our wildlife?

Not many things eat its leaves but come winter, ivy and brambles are the staple diet of smaller deer such as roe and muntjac.

Walk in any wood in winter and you can easily see that most, if not all, the lower leaves on tree trunks have been eaten. They have been eaten by deer and cleared as high as deer can reach.

The holly blue butterfly lays its eggs on ivy in summer but in spring it prefers holly.

Of course, all parts of ivy are poisonous to man but the likelihood of anyone eating ivy seems very remote.

More certain is the value of the berries when they ripen in late winter. These are feasted upon by wood pigeons. They’re also eaten by other large birds such as blackbirds and thrushes.

Ivy berries ripen at a time of year when most other wild food has run out and nature’s store is running low. And so this is an especially valuable food source to see birds through the hungry gap of late winter.

ivy flowers, bees, insects

Wild bee on Ivy flowers

If you take a look at the flowers of ivy and, whilst they are neither colourful or showy, they will be covered in the widest variety of insects!

They are obviously a very valued food source for not only hive bees and bumblebees but wasps and a whole host of flies too.

Butterflies also will join in this autumn feast to build up reserves before winter.

Flowers are produced on the oldest shoots and at the top of ivy plants in autumn.

By the way, if you’re interested in doing more for wildlife in your garden you might find my blog on plants with berries interesting


In the garden

As a garden plant ivy has a myriad of applications.

As a ground cover plant, in dry shade where nothing else will grow, it will thrive!

It will grow equally well in full sun so it can be an ideal plant choice to cover a difficult to mow steep bank.

Ivy on a brick wall, Goldheart ivy, Hedera,

Hedera helix Goldheart

Because it grows just as well in shade as in full sun it is a good climbing plant for north and east facing walls and fences where choices are often limited.

There variegated varieties brighten up dull areas.

Hedera helix ‘Gold Child’ and ‘Adam’ two of my favourites.

‘Goldheart’, although more widely available, can be showy but is prone to losing its gold centred leaves. Over time it often reverts back to the more vigorous parent with the green leaves of Hedera helix.




Large leaf ivies

The larger leaf Persian ivy is a good garden plant and, whilst not native, it has all the merits that our English one has.

I think that the variegated form Hedera colchica Dentata Variegata or even the gold centred ‘Sulphur Heart’ is an excellent choice to cover an old tree stump or even to create a ‘fedge’!

Now I imagine that you are wondering what I mean by a ‘fedge’ so here’s an explanation in the urban dictionary!

A fedge is a fence that is covered in plant material and in this case clad with ivy.

It has become popular to call a woven willow row a fedge.

But where properties are divided by a chain link style fence, what better way of softening that barrier than to cover it with ivy to provide an all year round interest?

Canary Island ivy covering a wall,

Hedera canariensis Gloire de Marengo

Also with large leaves but faster growing, the Canary Island ivy [Hedera canariensis ‘Gloire de Marengo’] will cover an area rapidly. However, because of its origin, it is not as hardy. Consequently this is an ivy for a sheltered, perhaps sunny, wall and will produce results very quickly.





Juvenile or mature leaves

Ivy, when allowed to climb into trees or to the top of walls, has a chance to mature and change its leaf shape.

Juvenile leaves have that classic three pointed shape but mature leaves become rounded.

It is among the mature leaves that the flowers and berries are produced.

The growth habit also changes from hugging tightly to its host to a more loose shaggy appearance. This provides shelter for all manner of wildlife but notably for birds and bats.

My title image shows this well with adult foliage on the left and juvenile on the right. There’s more on plant juvenility here.



But ivy damages trees?

It is argued by foresters that ivy brings down trees.

Berlin Wall.

November flowering ivy on remnants of the Berlin Wall

This is undoubtedly true in respect of old trees and probably shortens their life.

The weight of a mass of ivy in the top of the tree certainly acts like a sail caught in the wind.

But I would argue that the wildlife value out-weighs this. It provides food and shelter for birds, pollen and nectar for a very wide range of insects late in the year and food for deer in winter.

The dense evergreen leaves may even provide shelter for bats and for roosting owls. Surely those are good enough reasons to leave ivy on at least some trees?






A versatile trailing evergreen

a basket of plants, let's hear it for ivy

Variegated ivy with winter and spring flowering plants

Ivy is an excellent foliage plant for planted containers. It’s a very popular trailing plant used in hanging baskets too.

Because it tolerates neglect far better than many other flowering plants it is widely used.

When seasonal pots and hanging baskets are emptied the ivy can be planted into the garden.

Here it may need keeping in check a little as it grows into a very effective ground cover.





Ground covering ivy

As a dense ground cover ivy can prevent hard frost penetrating into the soil.

ground covering Hedera,

Hedera colchica Dentata Variegata ground cover

It also provides a good habitat for invertebrates to live. This can prove a life-saver for many birds and animals in the coldest winter.

Ivy can replace grass on steep banks and will do especially well in shade or where the soil becomes very dry.

Maintenance of ground covering ivy is limited to trimming back the edges if it grows beyond the area that you want to cover!

Ivy, allowed to spread under shrubs and trees, will keep weeds at bay and provide truly low maintenance ground cover.

Additionally it will allow seasonal bulbs to grow through it and bloom.



Damage to buildings

In Britain ivy has a bad press primarily from the building trade. This is not really justified.

Whilst there is no doubt that ivy growing on an ill maintained buildings or growing under the eaves into roof spaces will cause severe damage.

But trained onto walls with good mortar in the joints and properly fixed render will cause no harm.

Indeed, the insulation to the building that ivy provides will prevent severe temperature fluctuations.

This has been proven to reduce heating and cooling costs! [nb. the content of this article is correct but unfortunately the illustrations depict buildings covered with Boston Ivy which is of course not the same as ivy]


So after reading my blog are you convinced with my arguments?

Will you find a place for ivy in your garden?

As you’ve seen, it’s a very versatile and easy plant to grow!




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