Oh, a dainty plant is the Ivy green,
That creepeth o’er ruins old!
Much misunderstood, and the subject of myth and magic in the winter season, Winter Solstice and at Christmastime, Ivy is a wonderful ‘climber’ that has a story of mystery to tell from over a millennia ago. Ivy can be viewed from a botanical point of view, as a friend of nature, and as a plant of myth and magic. And, each is fascinating and spell-binding. So…
Ivy grows well throughout the UK and is native to Europe, western Asia, and North Africa, and can be found in many habitats including woodland, scrub, wasteland and on isolated trees. It quite likes shaded areas, and can live in all but the most dry, waterlogged or acidic soils.
Common name(s): Ivy, common ivy, Atlantic ivy, English ivy, British ivy, European ivy
Scientific name: Hedera helix
It is an evergreen plant so its easily identifiable leaves can be seen all the year. It flowers in September to November, and fruits ripen in November to January.
But, there’s more to Ivy than meets the eye
Fast he stealeth on, though he wears no wings,
And a staunch old heart has he.
How closely he twineth, how tight he clings,
To his friend the huge Oak Tree!
It is a woody climber which can grow to a height of 30metres. It has two different forms – juvenile and mature. It climbs trees, walls and building, using specialised and adapted hairs which help it ‘stick’ to surfaces as it climbs.
There are many views as to whether ivy climbing on brickwork damages the brick. It seems its doesn’t crack or damage brick but exploits any cracks and damage that were already there – but if you have ivy on your house etc it’s best to take professional advice.
As creeping ivy clings to wood or stone, And hides the ruin that it feeds upon, So sophistry, cleaves close to, and protects Sin’s rotten trunk, concealing its defects.
But, 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.
But, there’s more.
Friend of nature
Some may be inclined to pull ivy off a tree fearing that it will harm the tree (though in individual cases it may need to be trimmed back), but Ivy growing on trees does no harm to the tree, and, indeed, it provides an abundant supply of food for insects and birds.
Ivy is the wild lady of the greenwood; she gathers us all together, entwinning and embracing.
Nectar, pollen and berries of ivy are bountiful during autumn and winter when food is scarce. And it provides shelter for insects (especially hoverflies, wasps and bees), birds, bats and other small mammals. It is also an important food plant for some butterfly and moth larvae. It’s a wonderful plant.
But, there’s even more.
Myth & More
As an evergreen plant ivy (along with holly – and we looked at holly recently: please see here) was seen as an especially powerful symbol during winter, and it was brought into the house to keep negativity and evil spirits at bay.
In ancient Rome wearing a wreath of ivy leaves around ones head was supposed to prevent one from getting drunk – unlikely, I would think – and the Roman god Bacchus, the god of intoxication, was usually depicted wearing a wreath of ivy and grapevines.
However, Ivy was also seen as a symbol of intellectual prowess, then, and wreaths were used to crown the winners of poetry contests.
That headlong ivy!
Not a leaf will grow,
But thinking of a wreath,
Large leaves, smooth leaves.
Serrated like my vines, and half as green.
I like such ivy, bold to leap a height,
Twas strong to climb! as good to grow on graves,
As twist about a thyrsus , pretty too,
(And that’s not ill) when twisted round a comb.
(Elizabeth Barrett Browning)
In ancient Greece wreaths were also given to winning athletes, and they were also seen as emblems of fidelity, and priests would present a wreath of ivy to newly married couples. Even today it is still often the custom for bridal bouquets to contain a sprig of ivy. Ah, sometimes the old ways and wonderful traditions live on, even unbeknownst to many.
English ivy also has a tendency to travel along the ground – and who hasn’t tripped in the matted roots system as it spreads over the ground. Sometimes, if its growth is unchecked it can travel from one plant to another, binding the plants together, and this binding ability sometimes has a deeply symbolic meaning.
But, like ivy, we grow where there is room for us.
Some early versions of the medieval legend of Tristan and Isolde, refer to the ability of ivy to bind.
Here’s the story: Tristan, a Cornish knight went to Ireland to ‘claim’ Isolde, an Irish princess, as a bride for King Mark. During the arduous journey back to Cornwall, Tristan and Isolde drank a love potion made from ivy and fell madly in love. [But, please don’t emulate them in making or drinking any Ivy concoction as it’s poisonous, and so this story is for historical and mythological study purposes only). For them Ivy ‘binded’ them together.
In some other versions, Tristan and Isolde do die and are buried in separate graves by King Mark so that even in death they cannot be together. However, in that story, an ivy vine grew out of each grave towards the other one. The ivy vines, then, met and entwined around each others body, forming a loving and eternal connection. And, even when the King Mark cuts the vines they regrow and reconnect. Wonderful story.
For ancient Celts, Druids and medieval Christians, Ivy represented peace, perhaps because of its ability to bind different plants or even different kinds of plants together. And it is for that reason I would advocate you buying and bringing in some Ivy into your house, especially at the darkest part of the year when we celebrate the Winter solstice and/or Christmas.
It’s also for the reason of peace and fidelity that many Celts and Druids of old, and today (including me when conducting a handfasting or marriage ceremony) wear holly wreaths at some events – do see an earlier article where I did just that, which included the line: ‘‘You’ve got grass on your head, mister’.
Also, during the winter solstice, in years gone by, there was a tradition of a nominated boy wearing a holly wreath, and a girl wearing n ivy crown to symbolise the different sexes, the ‘battle’ between sun and moon, between dark and the barrenness of winter and light and the green fecund world, the endless turning of the circle. Yes, the ivy is a wonderful plant full of mystery and magic, and surely has a place in our homes this yuletide.
For the stateliest building man can raise,
Is the Ivy’s food at last.
Creeping on, where time has been,
A rare old plant is the Ivy green.