Reaching Out

Sue Whigham delves into ivy's colourful past to dispel the parasitic myth surrounding the plant

Much misunderstood, maligned and ignored, ivy does have some supporters, amongst them famous gardeners including William Robinson, EA Bowles, Rosemary Verey, Roy Strong, Christopher Lloyd and Margery Fish whose garden at Lambrook Manor was host to her large collection of Hedera. And I love Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall's fond description of it as being 'a plant of almost miraculous versatility and adaptability' and so it is.

Not only is ivy (Hedera) a totally accommodating evergreen plant that can be grown in inhospitable places, in dry or moist shade, in full sun, up dreary fences and ugly outbuildings but it looks marvellous as ground cover (and weed smotherer), as a border edge and just about everywhere else. It will cover walls and soften hard features. It also looks wonderful in elegant containers and can be topiarised or swagged. And at Kew Gardens you can see an example of a well kept ivy hedge around their Palm House.

Most of the myriad forms we use in our gardens today come originally from Hedera helix or our native ivy - also known rather charmingly as 'lovestone' or 'bindwood'. It is a woody climber native to the UK and certainly, judging by the amount I've just seen on a wet and windy dog walk, is not in any danger of dying out. And that is despite the fact that it is thought by some to tear the heart out of whatever it might be climbing up. In fact it is not parasitic as far as its host is concerned as it takes its nutrients and moisture from the soil. And should a tree covered liberally with ivy die, the chances are that it has its own problems and would have died whether elegantly draped or not.

Ivy has always been associated with the Christmas period and the Victorians particularly loved it and used it liberally in their gardens and as part of their indoor winter decorations. And in the 'language of flowers' the plant represented 'fidelity'.

The early herbalists believed, having seen ivy growing through vines, that the berries would help ease the effects of too much drinking and country lore tells us that the leaves of the ivy, thoroughly boiled, were a potent antidote to excessive alcohol intake. It was reported that John Wesley, whilst walking the length and breadth of the country preaching as he did, put ivy leaves in his shoes to relieve the pain caused by the five thousand miles he covered in a year. It was said, too, that a single ivy leaf left in water on New Year's Eve until Twelfth Night could predict a good year for its gatherer as long as it stayed fresh and didn't shrivel up or go black before then.

In the wild, ivy takes many years to climb up its host and, as it does so, the juvenile leaves which tend to be the traditional lobed ivy-leaf shape give way to adult leaves which are narrower and unlobed. The plant then tends to bush out and this dense foliage, seen to its best in the winter landscape, provides nesting and sheltering sites for birds such as wrens, robins, long tailed tits and wood pigeons as well as insects and hibernating bats who take advantage of its thick, protective canopy.

The clusters of flowers, each on its own individual stalk, come late on a mature plant providing a veritable last of the season nectar feast for many of the autumn's insects including Red Admiral, Holly Blue and Painted Lady butterflies. And the bonus is that you can literally hear an ivy plant buzzing on a sunny autumn day as it will be absolutely smothered with creatures busily gathering nectar.

The berries that follow are the number one favourite food for blackbirds and should any be left on the plant after the winter, these will provide a useful food for young birds in the spring, as do the insects that live amongst the leaves.

So which ivies to grow? I'm particularly fond of the highly decorative, large leaved and quite beautiful Hedera colchica 'Sulphur Heart' or 'Paddy's Pride'. This is one of the Persian ivies with large leaves of varying sizes all marked differently with splashes of yellows and greens. I haven't described them very well but take my word for it, they're wonderfully decorative!

Hedera colchica 'Dentata Variegata' is also incredibly ornamental - colour wise, it has greeny grey leaves with margins of cream and primrose yellows. This ivy looks particularly stunning as ground cover and is happy in both sun and shade.

Hedera helix 'Buttercup' is a perfect ivy for an area you want to light up. The new foliage is a rich yellow which fades as the leaf matures. It is slow growing and therefore non invasive.

Hedera helix 'Angularis Aurea' was used in a garden I read about designed by Sir Roy Strong. He used it to clothe the fence on three sides of a small courtyard garden for someone who wanted a more or less maintenance free garden. It's a beautiful ivy with large, very glossy leaves that are splashed with bright yellow. All it would need would be a clip in late winter/early spring. He'd combined it with a Clematis montana, one of the white ones, but I wondered if the clematis might take over a bit but I suppose that can be clipped after flowering to keep it under control.

Hedera helix 'Ivalace' is particularly good as ground cover as its growth is very compact. Leaves are stiffly curled at the edges and are bright green.

Hedera helix 'Pedata' has very small leaves with the central or middle lobe being long, hence its other name, 'Bird's Foot'. Great for ground cover too.

And a rather special ivy is H. helix f. Poetarum 'Poetica Arborea' known colloquially as Poet's Ivy or Italian ivy. Bob Brown (Cotswold Garden Flowers) describes it in his very readable catalogue as an 'Orange bush in spring' as over the winter months the leaves of this shrubby ivy turn a coppery colour with distinctive green veins. Oh, and the berries are yellow rather than the black usually seen on Hedera helix.

Fibrex Nurseries (, who hold the National Hedera Collection in Warwickshire, sell seven different Hedera Collections for the enthusiast as well as the most comprehensive choice of plants you can imagine. These collections include plants for the flower arranger, ideal plants for specific areas and uses and so on. I've now got visions of creating a Persian carpet effect just using ivies with different leaf forms and variegations (but with similar rates of growth) which should need very little attention apart from a quick clip over in the late winter followed by a rake through. Planning these things is the only thing to do whilst the ground is impossibly wet and soggy and the wind continues buffeting the garden.

Sue Whigham can be contacted on 07810 457948 for gardening advice and the sourcing and supplying of interesting garden plants.