Ivy - Hedera helix

On December days its deep green foliage stood out against bare stems of other plants. In autumn, though in full bloom, it was lost among the colorful leaves of surrounding trees and shrubs.

Jacek Borowski

The umbels of its greenish-yellow flowers were surrounded by bees and other insects looking for a late nectar, pollen and honeydew. It's just now, in winter, when the small green berries come into view. In April and May they will ripe and turn navy black. Watch out though, they are poisonous for people.

Ivy on a wall in winter. Kraków, Poland. Photo J.Borowski

Usually it's the older, over a dozen-year-old plants that come into bloom, and the flowers appear only on the stems that get sufficient sunlight. The flowering shoots are stiff and erect, have unlobed, poplar-like leaves and they don't produce adventitious roots. As a result, such stems don't climb when rooted, but grow as shrubs or miniature trees, and so they aren't classified as climbers (variety 'Arborescens').

Ivy growing on a building. Photo J.Borowski

A native Polish ivy variety that grows wild in woodlands is a protected species. It can grow as high as 25 meters, but it is also happy creeping along the ground. It is one of the few evergreen vines that never freeze in the cool Polish climate. It climbs up walls and trees, preferably of a rough surface, using adventitious roots. Ivy has an undeserved reputation for killing trees, In actual fact it doesn't

directly affect the health of the trees it climbs. Its aerial roots are used only to provide support and they never grow into the tissue of the host plant to tap into its resources.

It is a slow grower, climbing under 1 meter per year, but quite long-lived and the oldest specimens are over 200 years old. It's exceptionally tolerant of deep shade, but may also grow in full sun. However, on a sun-exposed wall it may be susceptible to frost. It thrives in soils that are well irrigated, but doesn't like acid soils. It's perfect for walls of all dimensions, both large and small. It makes a fine display overgrowing old, historical buildings like castles, old manor houses or historic tenements. Often grown in cemeteries. Ideal for growing up trees, adding color to bare trunks and branches, after the leaves have fallen.

Flowers of ivy, photo J.Borowski

In a well sheltered spot you can plant the varieties with variegated foliage e.g.: 'Thorndale' with a paler veining, 'Goldchild' with distinctly bicolor leaves, or the less susceptible to frost 'Goldheart' with a splash of golden yellow at the center of a leaf. Apart from that there exists a wide range of varieties with silvery foliage, such as 'Little Diamonnd', as well as with the leaves of different shapes.


Ivy fruits, photo J.Borowski

In order to enhance its growing conditions it's good to spread a layer of well-rotten manure at the base of the plant, especially around the young plants. It will encourage faster growth, which is crucial for small plants of a slow growth rate.

In antiquity ivy was besides grapevine one of the first cultivated climbers. On account of its longevity and evergreen foliage it was seen by the ancient Greeks as a symbol of eternal life and fertility. It was consecrated to the deities of Nature: Dionysus, Attics (vegetation god) and Cybele (the goddess of the Earth, fertility and the harvest). During the Dionysus orgies the Greeks used to chew its leaves to enhance their vitality, as well as they added it to their drinks as an aphrodisiac. In the Middle Ages it was often found overgrowing castle and monastery courtyards.


Leaves of ivy,
photo J.Borowski

Ivy climbing on a tree,
photo J.Skalski

Ivy 'Goldheart',
photo S.Marczyński