Ivy (Hedera helix)

Ivy is usually seen clinging to buildings and trees and is one of the UK’s few native evergreen plants. Sadly, this woody climber is a much maligned species and is often accused of strangling trees. But ivy should be celebrated and valued for the pivotal role it plays in providing wildlife with food and shelter.

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

Scientific name: Hedera helix
Family: Araliaceae

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

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.

Photograph of mature ivy
Only the mature form of ivy produces
flowers and fruits (Photo: WTML)

Habit: climbing stems with specialised hairs which help it stick to surfaces as it climbs. Mature forms can be self supporting.

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

Flowers: only mature forms produce flowers. They are yellowish green and appear in small clusters known as umbels.

Fruits: black and globular in clusters.

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.

Not to be confused with...

Both Boston ivy and poison ivy are found in 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 related to the mint family which was used to brew ale.

Where and when to find ivy

Where: 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.

When: it's an evergreen plant so leaves can be seen at any time of the year. It flowers in September to November and 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 food is scarce. 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 they are eaten by a range of species including thrushes, blackcaps, woodpigeons and blackbirds.

Ivy provides essential food 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. The best chance to see golden hoverfly is by looking for adults visiting ivy flowers within the vicinity of ancient trees. However, the golden hoverfly has only been seen at four UK locations in the past ten years, so the chances of seeing one are very slim.

Uses and folklore

Tradition and folklore: as evergreen species both ivy and holly were seen as especially powerful symbols during winter, and sprigs were brought into houses to keep evil spirits at bay.

Wearing a wreath of ivy leaves around the head is supposed 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 seen as 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. Regarded as the emblem of fidelity, priests would also present a wreath of ivy to newly married couples. Today it is still the custom for bridal bouquets to contain a sprig of ivy.

Animal food: ivy can be browsed by cattle and is sometimes used as an emergency winter fodder.

Heritage conservation: recent research by English Heritage indicates that under certain circumstances ivy can preserve old buildings by helping to regulate temperature on the stonework.

Toxicity: all parts of the plant are toxic to humans.

Ivy climbing on trees

Ivy on tree
Ivy is not parasitic and just uses trees
to climb (Photo: WTML)

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.

In fact, the presence of ivy on trees has huge wildlife benefits.

Does ivy kill trees?

We value the wildlife benefits of ivy and in general do not advocate cutting or removing ivy from trees. Ivy does not damage trees and its presence doesn’t indicate that a tree is unhealthy or create a tree safety issue in its own right. In some cases it may need to be removed, but we assess each case individually.

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