If you crouched down outside the first house I lived in as a child, and moved your head from side to side, you could just make out the name ‘Ivy Dene’ on its gateposts, not quite obliterated by a coat of paint. The house was a Victorian, red-brick semi, separated from the next house by only a narrow ‘entry’; our street was one in a grid of similar roads in a suburb of Liverpool. So what possessed the previous owners of our home to call it ‘Ivy Dene¹’ I don’t know – I remember no ivy, and there were definitely no wooded valleys around. But I liked the name, there was a suppressed excitement, an air of mystery attached to it; I loved that my house had a secret name (I can’t imagine many people took the time to crouch down in the street to check if anything had once been painted onto the gate post and we only ever knew our house as number twelve). Because of this, the ivy plant took on a special significance to me from an early age. It turns out ivy has had a special meaning to a lot of people over the years, and its symbolism often has its origins in the plants own characteristics.
Ivy’s Latin name is Hedera helix (helix is derived from the Ancient Greek word meaning something twisted or spiral). Ivy is an evergreen, a woody climber whose stems can reach up to thirty metres long. Its leathery leaves are a beautiful, deep, shiny green, marked with paler veins and the plant has two different phases of growth, something which is quite unusual in British plants. In the first, non-fertile phase, the shoots are whip like and the leaves are the familiar triangular shape with three to five lobes. In this stage of growth, stems will scramble over ground looking for a vertical surface to grow up. The plant employs an unusual tactic here too – instead of growing towards light like most stems, it grows towards shade – the stems are negatively phototrophic – so increasing the likelihood they will grow into the shadow cast by an upright structure. Once the stem has found something to climb, it then does so using specialist hairs which help it stick to surfaces. Once at the top of the structure, the stem switches to its sexual stage, producing short side branches which continuously divide and overtime, produce a thick blanket of ivy leaves which are elliptical or heart-shaped. In September to November, these divided branches produce the yellowish green flowers that are held in little clusters or umbels². By Christmas, if fertilised, the flowers have been replaced by the round ivy berries which start off green, but turn brown and finally black as they ripen.
Ivy has, for a long time, been used to represent perennial life and immortality because it is an evergreen. It has been used in Christmas wreaths since the 18th Century, but its winter tradition predates Christianity, going back to pagan symbols of the rebirth of spring. Ivy was also thought to keep evil spirits at bay, particularly house goblins, and sprigs of it would be brought into the home. In the Highlands and Islands, circlets of ivy, alone or in combination with rowan and honeysuckle, were hung over lintels of byres and put under milk vessels to keep evil away from milk or butter.
Another name for ivy is bindwood. This ability of ivy to bind things together is why it is also seen as an emblem of fidelity, of strong affectionate attachment. Greek priests would present a wreath of ivy to newly married couples and it is still customary to use ivy in bridal bouquets to this day. In Ancient Rome, ivy was seen as a symbol of intellectual achievement and wreaths were used to crown winners of poetry contests.
In Britain today, ivy often gets a bad press; it is maligned as a creeper which pulls down walls and buildings. However, recently English Heritage has been researching exactly what the effects of ivy is on walls and they have shown that under certain circumstances, ivy can preserve old buildings. Soundly mortared walls are impenetrable to climbing roots of ivy, so a well maintained building may benefit from ivy cover- it helps to regulate temperature on stonework and protects from further weathering by keeping rain off the mortar; rather than making the wall damp, ivy acts as a curtain forming an armour against the rain. However, it is true that if the plant does penetrate the substance of wall through a fissure, already weak or loose mortar may be damaged. The same is true of ivy on trees; where a tree is already dead or dying, ivy may contribute to trees or branches falling, but it does not cause a trees death in itself. Ivy uses trees and walls for support, allowing it to reach upwards to better levels of sunlight, but is not a parasitic plant; it is not like a strangler fig, squeezing the life from the tree it is climbing. Ivy has its own separate root system in soil so absorbs its own nutrients and water.
In our woodland, the presence of ivy on the trees is welcome, not least for its huge wildlife benefits. At the moment, most of the green we see around us in the wood is ivy. It plays a pivotal role in supporting wildlife; it is a nature reserve in miniature. Before Christmas, while the ivy was flowering, it was usually covered in insects; it was one of the few plants still providing an abundant supply of nectar and pollen. For insects such as bees, wasps and hoverflies preparing to hibernate, the ivy flowers were an essential source of food. Now, at this time of the year when all food is scarce, its fat-rich berries are a vital source of energy for other wildlife; birds in particular can be seen feasting on the black fruits. And it is not only the food that the ivy provides that makes it so important – birds, insects, bats and other small mammals find much needed shelter between its leaves. For all of these reasons, if ivy needs trimming, it is best to do it between late spring and summer, so making sure its benefits to wildlife are maximised – it always seems such a shame that hedgerows round about are cut in the autumn, just as the ivy is beginning to flower – it seems such a waste of this vital resource for wildlife.
Ivy is poisonous to humans although in the past it has been recommended as a treatment for rheumatism, bronchitis, whooping cough and dysentery as well as a cure for the plague and intestinal worms. Cattle, on the other hand, do not find ivy toxic, and it has been used in history as an emergency winter fodder.
So the common, humble ivy has a rich folklore and an invaluable role in the countryside. But for me it will always be the plant holding the gateway to secret places – the plant that kept the doorways of Brambley Hedge³ hidden, the plant whose tendrils blew aside to show Mary Lennox the door to The Secret Garden°, the plant whose name held the secret identity of my first home – a place to which I never found the concealed entrance, but which lived in my mind as a wonderful place to discover one day.
¹Dene – a vale, especially the deep, narrow, wooded valley of a small river.
²I like the word umbel. It is derived from the same Latin word as umbrella – umbra meaning shade. An umbel is a group of flowers that spread on stalks like umbrella spokes, with all the flowers making a flat surface above the stalks.
³The Brambley Hedge Stories by Jill Barkley
°The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett