Quick facts

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

Scientific name: Hedera helix and Hedera hibernica

Family: Araliaceae

Origin: native to the UK

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 native species of ivy in the UK: Hedera helix and Hedera hibernica.

H. helix is the common ivy, which can be found throughout the UK.

H. hibernica is the Atlantic ivy, which is more common in the west of Britain and in Ireland. Both species can climb, but there is a cultivar of H. hibernica called 'Hibernica' which grows along the ground and does not usually climb. This cultivar is often planted as ground cover and can become invasive.

Not to be confused with:

Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidatus) is a North American plant that is widely planted in the UK. It is a member of the grape family and is not closely related to ivy.

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is another North American plant that is not closely related to ivy. It is a poisonous plant and can cause skin irritation.

Credit: Andrew Kearton / Alamy Stock Photo


Dark green and glossy with pale veins. Juvenile leaves have 3-5 lobes and a pale underside. Mature leaves are oval or heart-shaped without lobes. Common ivy (shown right) has leaves with 3-5 lobes, while Atlantic ivy has leaves with 5-7 lobes.

Credit: Ben Lee / WTML


Only mature plants produce flowers. They are yellowish green and appear in small, dome-shaped clusters known as umbels. Flowers of common ivy are typically larger, more rounded and with a more pronounced green tinge than those of Atlantic ivy. Both species typically bloom in the autumn, but common ivy may bloom slightly earlier.

Credit: Ben Lee / WTML


The fruits of both common and Atlantic ivy are black, berry-like, and almost globular in clusters. However, there is one key difference: the fruits of common ivy are typically larger and more glossy than the fruits of Atlantic ivy.

Where to find ivy

Ivy is a common and widespread plant in the United Kingdom and Ireland. It can be found in many habitats, including woodland, scrub, wasteland, and on isolated trees. Both common ivy and Atlantic ivy are tolerant of shade and survive in all but the most dry, waterlogged, or acidic soils.

Wild ivy found growing anywhere in Britain or Ireland may be either species, although Atlantic ivy predominates in the west of Britain and in Ireland, as suggested by its common name.

Ivy is an evergreen plant, so leaves can be seen at any time of the year. It flowers from September to November and its fruits ripen between November to January.

Common ivy is more common and widespread than Atlantic ivy. It is found throughout the UK, from the lowlands to the uplands.

Atlantic ivy is more common in the west of Britain and in Ireland. It is also found in some parts of eastern England, but it is less common there.

Value of ivy to wildlife

Nectar, pollen and berries of ivy are an essential food source for insects and birds, especially 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.

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.

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

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that wearing a wreath of ivy leaves around the head would 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

Ivy is a popular ornamental plant and is grown in gardens and parks all over the world. Many forms of horticultural ivy are grown, differing in habit and in shape and colour of the leaves.

It is also used in traditional medicine and herbalism. 

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


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