Quick facts

Common name(s): ivy, common ivy, Atlantic ivy, English ivy

Scientific name: Hedera helix

Family: Araliaceae

Origin: native

Flowering season: September to November

Habitat: woodland, urban areas, parks and gardens

What does ivy look like?

Ivy is an evergreen, woody climber which can grow to a height of 30m. It has two different forms – juvenile and mature. It has climbing stems with specialised hairs which help it stick to surfaces as it climbs. Mature forms can be self-supporting.

There are two subspecies of ivy in the UK

There are two native subspecies of ivy in the British Isles: Hedera helix ssp. helix and Hedera helix ssp. hibernica.

The subspecies hibernica does not climb but spreads across the ground. There are also many cultivated varieties of ivy, with differing leaves which are variable in size, colour, number and depth of lobes. The leaves are often variegated green with white, cream or yellow.

Ivy growing on a birch tree trunk

Credit: Andrew Kearton / Alamy Stock Photo

Leaves

Dark green and glossy with pale veins. Leaves of juvenile forms have 3-5 lobes and a pale underside. On mature forms, leaves are oval or heart shaped without lobes.

Hoverfly feeding from ivy flowers

Credit: Ben Lee / WTML

Flowers

Only mature plants produce flowers. They are yellowish green and appear in small, dome-shaped clusters known as umbels.

Ivy berries

Credit: Ben Lee / WTML

Fruits

Black, berry-like and almost globular in clusters.

Not to be confused with: Boston ivy and poison ivy. Both of these come from North America and are completely unrelated to ivy. The sap of poison ivy contains a compound which causes an irritant rash when any part of the plant is touched.

Ground ivy is another unrelated species, which may be confused for ivy. It is a European herb in the mint family and was used to brew ale.

Where to find ivy

Ivy grows well throughout the UK and can be found in many habitats, including woodland, scrub, wasteland and on isolated trees. It is tolerant of shade and survives in all but the most dry, waterlogged or acidic soils.

It's an evergreen plant so leaves can be seen at any time of the year. It flowers in September to November and its fruits ripen in November to January.

Value to wildlife

Nectar, pollen and berries of ivy are an essential food source for insects and birds during autumn and winter when little else is about. It also provides shelter for insects, birds, bats and other small mammals. The high fat content of the berries is a nutritious food resource for birds and the berries are eaten by a range of species including thrushes, blackcaps, woodpigeons and blackbirds.

Ivy is particularly important to many insects before they go into hibernation. Some of the main insect species which forage on the nectar and pollen of ivy are bees, hoverflies and common wasps.

It is an important food plant for some butterfly and moth larvae such as holly blue, small dusty wave, angle shades and swallow-tailed moth.

Many rare insects are attracted to ivy flowers, including the golden hoverfly.

Ivy growing on a birch tree trunk

Credit: Andrew Kearton / Alamy Stock Photo

Does ivy kill trees?

Ivy uses trees and walls for support, allowing it to reach upwards to better levels of sunlight. It is not a parasitic plant and has a separate root system in the soil and so absorbs its own nutrients and water as needed. Ivy does not damage trees and its presence doesn’t indicate that a tree is unhealthy, and it doesn't create a tree-safety issue.

Did you know?

Holly and ivy were both important symbols during winter as they are both evergreens, hence the Christmas carol ‘The Holly and the Ivy’.

Mythology and symbolism

Wearing a wreath of ivy leaves around the head was once said to prevent one from getting drunk. The Roman god Bacchus, the god of intoxication, was often depicted wearing a wreath of ivy and grapevines. Ivy was also a symbol of intellectual achievement in ancient Rome and wreaths were used to crown winners of poetry contests. Wreaths were also given to winning athletes in ancient Greece.

Ivy was a symbol of fidelity and so priests would present a wreath of ivy to newly married couples. Today it is still the custom for bridal bouquets to contain a sprig of ivy.

Uses of ivy

Research by English Heritage has shown that in some cases, ivy can help preserve stonework on old buildings.

Many forms of horticultural ivy are grown, differing in habit and in shape and colour of the leaves.