(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 26, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
When I was very small we lived in a tiny house at the bottom of a hill in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in southeast Kentucky. I could follow a worn path that led me to the rock wall surrounding the driveway curving around the front of my grandparents' yard. The rock wall was covered in English Ivy, but there was a small bare spot where the rocks projected just enough for tiny feet to climb up onto the driveway, and into the yard. My bedtime stories were made up of faeries and gremlins, gnomes and leprechauns, all little people who dwelled in the crevices of tiny hiding spaces. I just knew they lived beneath the climbing ivy. I thought it only appropriate to offer them gifts so they would be happy and not trip me as I scampered up and down the rock wall. I don't remember ever falling, so maybe I kept them happy.
As I grew older I learned other interesting beliefs about ivy. One old folk belief that great Aunt Bett told me was if you put a piece of ivy under your pillow, you will see your true love's face in your dreams. I tried that many times and saw lots of faces, but most of them took on the appearance of little green leprechauns or ugly trolls who lived under bridges. That truly was not my idea of my true love. Another old belief warns that more ivy than holly in your Christmas decorations will bring you bad luck during the year to come. I tried to always make sure things were equally distributed.
The plant also had many associations with drink. In mythological studies, I find it was sacred to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. Revelers at ancient Athenian drinking parties wore ivy wreaths. In England during Elizabethan times, a bush of ivy or a painting of one was a commonplace tavern sign.
There are also medicinal properties attributed to English ivy. Herbalists once recommended that the resin of the bark be taken internally to stimulate menstruation, and used externally as an antiseptic. The bark resin was sometimes used on dental cavities in the same manner as present day tooth ache gels.
I was presented with some caution regarding ivy by Aunt Bett. She truly knew everything about plants, and even to this day I heed her warnings. She did not use ivy for any treatments, but she knew of my interest in the plant, so she made sure I knew of any problems it might create for me. The berries and large quanties of the whole plant may cause poisoning. That was her mantra about a lot of plants she did not want me to experiment with. She told me that poultices made from the leaves may be applied to cuts and skin eruptions. She also said her ancestors had at one time made a tincture of the bark resin. Adding it to a tea prepared from the fresh leaves made a drink that was once given internally for a variety of problems, but she said it was no longer used in the "modern medicine" she lived by in the 40's and 50's. I think of that now and have to smile. Her "modern medicine" has come such a long way.
English ivy, Hedera helix, grows almost anywhere. Native to Eurasia and North Africa, ivy has become naturalized in North America and is cultivated world wide. It is a climbing or creeping plant with a woody stem, and can reach up to 100 feet with the aid of its aerial roots on the undersides of the shoots. Dark glossy evergreen alternate leaves are triangular, three to five lobed. In some areas, yellowgreen flowers produce bitter black berries, which ripen the next year.
I call English ivy both beauty and beast, because it can be a beautiful, though invasive plant. I know that, but my heart sees only its beauty, and so I learned to have the best of both worlds. I keep it contained and restrained, and ivy and I live happily together. It sits in a pot on top of a stump in my back yard, it's tendrils trailing downward, knowing it will soon receive a haircut. It grows in another pot in the front yard, vaguely resembling a turtle as it makes it way over a small stone. It also receives an occasional haircut. Best of all, after some years I finally built a rock wall, and I have tendrils of ivy creeping over the edge, providing hiding places for my ever present faeries and leprechauns, gnomes, and the occasional troll.
Sometimes I get creative with the tendrils I trim from the plants, and weave them into wreaths to decoratively hang on the branches of trees. When the leaves dry and crumble to the ground, I slather peanut butter mixed with sunflower seeds, oats, and anything I can find that the birds might like, onto the bare weath, then watch the cardinals scramble for food in the wintertime.
With a little care and some good hand held trimmers, ivy needn't cause you grief. In fact, it might make the little creatures in your life much happier. It is a plant from my childhood, and it holds good memories for me, so I will continue to trim it and treasure it, no matter how much effort it takes to control it.
The thumbnail photo is from plant files and is the work of DG member, Sladeofsky. Thank you for the excellent photo. All other photos are from my own garden.
Information is from my Aunt Bett writings, and from my own memories and experiences.
If you would like to take a look in the comment Gloria125 added to this article, she has provided a link to a photo of black ivy berries along with red holly berries, it is a lovely photo. I have tried the link and it works from her comment, but for whatever reason, I can't get the link to connect from my article, but it is there if you would like to see it. Thank you, Gloria.