Common Ivy

Inimitable Ivy

As an evergreen plant, it is possible to see ivy throughout the year here in the UK. However, autumn is when it really starts to come into its own. Its late blooming flowers provide a host of invertebrates with food, and it offers a cosy shelter for bats, birds and insects. Despite this importance to wildlife, though, ivy is often unpopular with gardeners and a victim of some undeserved slurs. Read on to find out more about inimitable ivy and why we should embrace this valuable and beautiful plant.

Social Climbing

One of our commonest hedgerow plants, ivy is an unfussy species that grows in a variety of soil types in woods, gardens, waste ground or up individual trees or buildings. We actually have two very similar native species of ivy here in the UK. Common ivy is also known as English ivy and is widespread across Britain. Atlantic ivy, meanwhile, is commoner in the west of the country. Both plants have dark green, glossy leaves with pale veins, although they sometimes turn a reddish colour in autumn. Both species also have an initial juvenile growth period during which they climb quickly up a supporting structure such as a tree, wall or hedge. Special aerial rootlets form on the climbing stems which then secrete a glue-like substance to attach them to supporting surfaces. Some plants can reach up to 30 metres in height this way.

Ivy and light
Ivy will take advantage of all sorts of supports to get higher

The younger, climbing stage plants have the distinctive, classic lobed leaves we associate with ivies. Common ivy leaves have between three and five lobes, Atlantic between five and seven. Once plants are established, though, and no longer climbing, their leaves change shape to become oval and unlobed. This mature stage is also when they produce flowers for the first time. Appearing as yellowish umbels, ivy flowers generally bloom between September and November, long after many other plants have stopped flowering. Round, blackish purple fruit clusters then follow from November to early spring.

common ivy
The obvious lobes on these leaves show they are on a young plant
Ivy flowers
These flowers are just beginning to turn into fruiting bodies. Also note the unlobed leaves

Winter Bounty

That late flowering and fruiting is partly what makes ivy so important for other wildlife. A large range of pollinators can keep feeding on ivy flower nectar well into the autumn when there are few other sources of food. Watch any flowering ivy in September and October and it will often be a hive (pun intended) of insect activity as hundreds of bees, wasps, flies and butterflies visit, particularly on sunny days.

common wasps on ivy
Common wasps are important ivy pollinators
hornet mimic hoverfly
Hoverflies, like this hornet mimic, are frequent ivy flower visitors in autumn

Common species include red admiral and comma butterflies, common wasps, honeybees, various hoverflies and common green bottle flies. Queen bumblebees use them to feed up before hibernating. The ivy bee, a solitary bee newly established in the UK, is even named for the plant because it is so reliant on it and times its emergence to coincide with ivy flowers appearing. At night, moths such as the angle shades, visit. All these insects help pollinate the flowers, performing a valuable service to the plant in return for food.

Ivy bee
Ivy bees were first recorded in the UK in 2001 and match their emergence with ivy flowering
red admiral
Late flying butterflies, such as red admirals, commonly feed on ivy nectar

Just as ivy’s flowers provide food for pollinators late in the year, its fat-rich fruits are also available when a lot of other food has gone. Thrushes such as blackbirds, redwings and fieldfares take advantage throughout the winter. Starlings, robins and woodpigeons also eat them, as well as the increasing number of blackcaps spending the winter here. Once again, the plant benefits as its seeds consequently pass through these birds’ guts and spread far and wide. A number of moth and butterfly caterpillars, meanwhile, eat ivy roots, leaves or stems. These include the larvae of holly blue butterflies and rosy rustic, small angle shades and yellow-barred brindle moths. And where so many creatures congregate, others, such as spiders and hornets, inevitably visit to feed on them in turn.

frosty ivy fruit
Ivy fruits right the way through the winter frosts
Redwings are just one of a number of birds that eat ivy fruits in winter

Home, Sweet Home

Because it is evergreen, ivy also provides shelter for a number of creatures throughout the year. In winter, it is a valuable roosting habitat for small birds and mammals including wrens, house sparrows, long-tailed tits and wood mice. It also creates a safe, relatively warm hibernation spot for a range of invertebrates. Brimstone, peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies, various ladybird species and herald moths will all spend some or all of the winter tucked away in ivy. Some bats likewise hibernate behind ivy leaf cover. Conversely, ivy is a wonderful source of shade in the hotter months. This means that birds, small mammals and invertebrates can all find respite from high temperatures amidst its leaves. This may become increasingly important as our climate warms.

Ladybird on ivy
Ladybirds often hibernate in ivy
Inimitable ivy
Ivy provides a dense shelter for birds, mammals and invertebrates all year round

Whether climbing through a hedge or up a tree or wall, ivy offers good cover for nesting birds during the breeding season, as well. Small birds such as robins, wrens, house sparrows and dunnocks will all take advantage of this protection. It is particularly useful for species that nest early before other plants come into leaf. One bird especially associated with nesting behind ivy cover in wall or tree holes is the spotted flycatcher. This red-listed migrant declined by a staggering 92% between 1967 and 2020. This means that any help we can give them by leaving ivy in our gardens is crucial. And, more generally, ivy in urban gardens helps to create vital green corridors in built-up environments. Green corridors link up larger habitats, allowing organisms of all sizes to move safely between them, helping them to feed and breed more successfully.

spotted flycatcher
Spotted flycatchers prefer holes and ledges hidden by ivy to those without

Ivy and Man

Today, many people are at best ambivalent about ivy and at worst actively dislike it to the point of removing it wherever it grows. This is partly because of a false assumption that ivy is a parasite that kills the trees it grows up. Ivy, though, is self-supporting, and its own root system enters the soil independently of any supporting trees or shrubs. It therefore gets all of its water and nutrients without ‘stealing’ any from the tree.

oak and ivy
Ivy does not parasitise trees and is not a sign a tree is sick or dying

Another belief is that ivy damages walls and buildings. While it is true that already weakened masonry can be further affected by ivy’s aerial roots entering cracks, if the brickwork is sound, ivy causes no damage at all to buildings. In fact, it can make a building more sustainable by creating a green wall. Green, or living, walls help cool buildings in summer, keep them warm in winter, improve air quality and slow excess water runoff to make flooding less likely.

inimitable ivy and wall
Ivy can force its aerial roots into crumbling masonry but doesn’t damage sound walls

Our relationship with ivy hasn’t always been as antagonistic as it is now. Many pre-Christian cultures used it to ward off evil. Its evergreen nature made it a potent symbol of eternal life and rebirth throughout the dark Northern Hemisphere winter months. As such it was used by some cultures to mark the winter solstice and the slow creep towards spring. Later on, Christianity co-opted this imagery, hence its appearance in the popular hymn ‘The Holly and the Ivy’. Its constant nature also made it a popular symbol of fidelity, and it is still sometimes used in marriage bouquets today for this reason.

Ivy flowers
Ivy was once used to ward off evil

Further south in Europe, the Ancient Greeks and Romans associated it with the gods of wine and pleasure, Dionysus and Bacchus respectively. This may be because ivy was believed to prevent drunkenness. The connection carried on into the Middle Ages when taverns in England often advertised their wares with a branch of ivy hung outside.

Embracing Ivy

Despite, or possibly even because, it is found in so many places across the UK, many of us pay little attention to the ivy covering trees and walls around us. Others seek to actively remove it, thinking it damages trees and buildings. However, this beautiful evergreen climber is not the parasite some think it is. It is also hugely important to a host of other organisms. When most other plants have finished flowering or fruiting for the year, ivy bursts into life, providing crucial food late, and very early, in the year. Many birds, mammals and invertebrates shelter amidst its leaves or make their homes there, too. So, if you are contemplating removing the ivy in your garden, reconsider. You will be doing a wonderful service to wildlife by letting it stay.

Ivy fruit inimitable ivy
Ivy fruits are green when young but turn purply black as they age

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