Tree Lore: Ivy
by Gwylim O.Davies
(Hedera Helix LINN.)
The plant is found over the greater part of Europe and Northern and Central Asia, and is said to have been particularly abundant at Nyssa, the fabled home of Bacchus in his youth. There are many varieties, but only two accepted species, i.e. Hedera Helix and the Australian species, which is confined to the southern Continent.
—From a Modern Herbal
Ivy is associated with the ogham gort, the letter G, and the time from September 30 – October 27 … ‘September...eleventh month in the Celtic Ogham. September is said to have originated from the word ‘Septem,’ which means seven, being the seventh month in the oldest Roman calendar. It is the first month of Autumn's rule and a time when the Druids celebrated their Festival of Alban Elued ... bidding the Sun God farewell, while thanking him for the harvest.
—From Penumbra’s webpages
Ivy reminds us of the movement of the heavens and the way this is reflected on the earth. It has the ability to bind all things together. It can wander freely, linking tree to tree, or form dense thickets that block out the light and restrict passage. Ivy brings shelter or overwhelming darkness and reminds us that where there is life, there is also death. Ivy represents the wandering of the soul in its search for enlightenment and it carries a warning to be sure of the direction of your desires so that you avoid being ensnared by them. True progress is made, however, when all the lessons of the preceding trees have been linked together with Ivy, in such a way that the light can still enter and no limb need break.
—From The Blue Roebuck
Ivy: Hedera Helix & Friends
When I thought about doing research into ivy I already knew that ivy was a complex topic, because I was a landscape gardener for years and eventually became a licensed landscape contractor under California, US, law. For one thing, ivy is a real pain to remove and it takes a lot of maintenance to keep it in its place in a garden. A lot of people just think it is a weed. But, more importantly, there are all kinds of ivy plants … and I didn’t have a clue how a plant like ivy would have any kind of significance for druidic peoples or anybody with a brain interested in herbal medicine, etc. (Eventually, as is described below, I found out it is related to ginseng and, even if ivy is poisonous unless carefully used, it is a poets headpiece and combined with holly brings peace to a household – now if that isn’t an important use I don’t know what is.)
Garden Use & Cultivation
Hedera (English name ivy (plural, ivies) is a genus of about ten species of climbing or ground-creeping evergreen woody plants in the family Araliaceae, native to the Atlantic Islands, western, central and southern Europe, northwestern Africa and across central-southern Asia east to Japan. On suitable surfaces (trees and rock faces), they are able to climb to at least 25–30 metres above the basal ground level.
They have two leaf types, with palmately lobed juvenile leaves on creeping and climbing stems, and unlobed cordate adult leaves on fertile flowering stems exposed to full sun, usually high in the crowns of trees or the top of rock faces. The juvenile and adult shoots also differ, the former being slender, flexible and scrambling or climbing with small roots to affix the shoot to the substrate (rock or tree bark), the latter thicker, self-supporting, and without roots. The flowers are produced in late autumn, individually small, in 3–5 cm diameter umbels, greenish-yellow, and very rich in nectar, an important late food source for bees and other insects; the fruit are small black berries ripening in late winter, and are an important food for many birds, though poisonous to humans. The seeds are dispersed by birds eating the fruit. The leaves are eaten by the larvae of some species of Lepidoptera such as Angle Shades, Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing, Scalloped Hazel, Small Angle Shades, Small Dusty Wave (which feeds exclusively on ivy), Swallow-tailed Moth and Willow Beauty. Regional English names for ivy include Bindwood and Lovestone (for the way it clings and grows over stones).
The species are largely allopatric and closely related, and all have on occasion been treated as varieties or subspecies of H. helix, the first species described. Several additional species have been described in the southern parts of the former USSR, but are not regarded as distinct by most botanists.
• Hedera algeriensis – Algerian ivy. Northwest Africa.
• Hedera azorica – Azores ivy. Azores.
• Hedera canariensis – Canaries ivy. Canary Islands.
• Hedera colchica – Caucasian ivy or Persian ivy. Northern Turkey to Iran.
• Hedera helix – Common or English ivy. Western & central Europe, except for the Atlantic coasts.
• Hedera hibernica – Atlantic ivy. Atlantic coastal areas of Europe from Scotland & Ireland to Portugal.
• Hedera maderensis – Madeiran ivy. Madeira.
• Hedera nepalensis – Himalayan ivy. Himalaya, China, Taiwan.
• Hedera pastuchowii – Pastuchov's ivy. Central Asia (southern states of the former USSR).
• Hedera rhombea – Japanese ivy. Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan.
Uses and cultivation
Ivies are very popular in cultivation within their native range, both for attracting wildlife, and for their evergreen foliage; many cultivars with variegated foliage (photo, right) and/or unusual leaf shape have been selected. They are particularly valuable for covering unsightly walls. Ivies have however proved to be a serious invasive weed in the parts of North America where winters are not severe, and their cultivation there is now discouraged in many areas.
Much has been argued as to whether ivy climbing trees will harm the tree or not; the consensus in Europe is that they do not harm trees significantly, though they may compete for ground nutrients and water to a small extent, and trees with a heavy growth of ivy can be more liable to windthrow. Problems are greater in North America, where trees may be overwhelmed by the ivy to the extent they are killed; this could be because ivy in North America, being introduced, is without the natural pests and diseases that control its vigour in its native areas. A more serious problem is that ivy creates a vigorous, dense, shade-tolerant evergreen groundcover (precisely the characteristics for which it is often cultivated) that can spread over large areas and outcompete native vegetation.
Similar concerns are expressed about damage to walls. Here it is normally considered that a soundly mortared wall is impenetrable to the climbing roots of ivy and will not be damaged, and is also protected from further weathering by the ivy keeping rain off the mortar. Walls with already weak or loose mortar may however be badly damaged, as the ivy is able to root into the weak mortar and further break up the wall. Subsequent removal of the ivy can be difficult, and is likely to cause more damage than the ivy itself.
Ivy in History
Ivy has been used for various purposes throughout history and is associated with Bacchus because it was supposed to grow all over his fabled homeland, Nyssa. The Modern Herbal site summarizes the history and gives a general description as follows:
Ivy was in high esteem among the ancients. Its leaves formed the poet's crown, as well as the wreath of Bacchus, to whom the plant was dedicated, probably because of the practice of binding the brow with Ivy leaves to prevent intoxication, a quality formerly attributed to the plant. We are told by old writers that the effects of intoxication by wine are removed if a handful of Ivy leaves are bruised and gently boiled in wine and drunk.
It is the Common Ivy that is alluded to in the Idylls of Theocritus, but the Golden Ivy of Virgil is supposed to be the yellowberried variety (Hedera Chrysocarpa), now so rare.
The Greek priests presented a wreath of Ivy to newly-married persons, and the Ivy has throughout the ages been regarded as the emblem of fidelity. The custom of decorating houses and churches with Ivy at Christmas was forbidden by one of the early Councils of the Church, on account of its pagan associations, but the custom still remains. An Ivy leaf is the badge of the Gordons.
The Roman agricultural writers much recommended Ivy leaves as cattle food, but they are not relished by cows, though sheep and deer will sometimes eat them in the winter. The broad leaves being evergreen afford shelter to birds in the winter, and many prefer Ivy to other shrubs, in which to build their nests.
The wood when it attains a sufficient size is employed by turners in Southern Europe, but being very soft is seldom used in England except for whetting the knives of leather dressers. It is very porous, and the ancients thought it had the property of separating wine from water by filtration, an error arising from the fact that wood absorbs the colour of the liquid in its passage through the pores. On the Continent it has sometimes been used in thin slices as a filter.
In former days, English taverns bore over their doors the sign of an Ivy bush, to indicate the excellence of the liquor supplied within: hence the saying 'Good wine needs no bush.'
The medicinal virtues of Ivy are little regarded nowadays. Its great value is as an ornamental covering for unsightly buildings and it is said to be the only plant which does not make walls damp. It acts as a curtain, the leaves from the way they fall, forming a sort of armour and holding and absorbing the rain and moisture.
Ivy is very hardy; not only are the leaves seldom injured by frost, but they suffer little from smoke, or from the vitiated air of manufacturing towns. The plant lives to a great age, its stems become woody and often attain a considerable size - Ivy trunks of a foot in diameter are often to be seen where the plant has for many years climbed undisturbed over rocks and ruins.The spring months are the best times for planting.
Poison Ivy – Plants fight back
The biggest plant pest that you are likely to encounter is the ubiquitous Poison Ivy, Rhus radicans and its close relative, Poison Oak. It grows just about everywhere and so far, it looks like this summer is going to produce an especially excellent crop. P.I. is extremely variable in its forms, growing as a vine, a ground cover, or upright. Old vines get very hairy looking. The old addage is ‘Leaves of three, leave it be’, and refers to the 3 glossy or dull green leaflets, 2 to 4 inches long. The leaves are somewhat variable in shape. Poison Oak has more irregular leaves. It produces whitish flowers from August to November that dry and remain for a long time. In the fall, the leaves take on bright colors --yellow and then turning red. An oil that the plant produces is responsible for varying degrees of irritation from skin inflammation to blistering. You don't even have to touch it. You can get it from smoke if it is being burned. It is said that even 100 year old leaves can cause irritation.
Peoples' bodies respond differently to exposure to Poison Ivy. You may get into it once and not experience any effects, only to be lulled by that false sense of security, get into it later and become such a blistered and scarred, itchy, freak that you won't want to leave the house. Sometimes people who have been seemingly immune to the exposure will have a bout that will make up for all of the times when they were in it before and didn't get it.
Herbal & Medicinal Uses
Given the weed-like and poisonous characteristics I thought I would never get to anything good about ivy.
So, that was my next task and it turned out to be easier than I thought. Immediately I found information about how ivy was good for asthma, bronchitis, colds, chronic pulomonary disorders, sore throats, and even getting rid of stretch marks.
Ground ivy can be usedas a solution to clean the eyes, nervous relaxation teas, treatment of ulcers, and a lot more.
‘The leaves and the berries are said to be cathartic, diaphoretic and stimulant. A decoction of the plant is used to treat skin diseases.’
'… the following notes are for the closely related Hedera helix and quite possibly are relavent here[K]. The plant is said to be poisonous in large doses[7, 10, 65, 76] although the leaves are eaten with impunity by various mammals without any noticeable harmful affects. The leaves and fruits contain the saponic glycoside hederagenin which, if ingested, can cause breathing difficulties and coma. The sap can cause dermatitis with blistering and inflammation. This is apparently due to the presence of polyacetylene compounds.’
Even the United States National Insitute of Health and related agencies have been involved in studying the medicinal uses of ivy (in this case as an anti-inflammatory). It may have positive benefit in treating cancer: ‘invasive’ plants often contain valuable medicines to help cure diseases. Of 9 ‘invasive’ plants listed in one source ALL NINE (100%) are useful, either as medicinal or energy plants -- 6 are reported to treat CANCER; 2 to treat related DISEASES; and one to provide ENERGY.
NOTE: ASTERISK MEANS PLANT REPORTED TO TREAT CANCER OR TUMOR.
1. Bindweed *** CANCER
2. English Holly *** CANCER
3. English Ivy *** CANCER
4. English Laurel *** CANCER
5. Garlic Mustard --- MEDICINAL (related plant used for CANCER)
6. Herb Robert *** CANCER
7. Himalayan Blackberry --- [related plant used for CANCER]
8. Japanese Knotweed *** CANCER
9. Reed Canary Grass --- used for ANIMAL FOOD & ENERGY SOURCE
Ivy has long been recognized as a tonic and useful herb, but you have got to know what you’re doing.
Ivy and Ginseng
Ivy is related to Ginseng according to the Botanical Dermatology Database online:
(Ginseng or Aralia or Ivy family)
This family of some 700 species in 55 genera consists mostly of trees and shrubs, but includes some twiners. Most species occur in tropical regions, particularly in Indomalaysia and tropical America. Other species are native to temperate regions, and some species have become widely distributed by horticulture and as houseplants.
A characteristic of the family is the presence of resin passages which produce an aromatic smell when crushed (Corner 1952).
Perhaps the best known temperate species is Hedera helix L., the ivy. The ritual use of ivy as the archetypal evergreen, and its popularity as a decorative covering for walls and fences and as a houseplant, brings it into unusually close contact with man.
The root of Panax ginseng C. Meyer is the Korean or Oriental ginseng of commerce. It is also known as Ren Shen or as Radix Panacis Gingeng. Preparations of the root are widely used as a herbal remedy for their reputed tonic and adaptogenic properties (Dixon 1976). Several other types of ginseng are derived from members of the Araliaceae, and also from totally unrelated families (Nadkarni 1976, Lui & Staba 1980).
The online Encyclopedia of Herbs says: ’Ivy is grown to grow up the outside of the home to act as a guardian and protector. It is worn or carried by brides to bring luck to the marriage. It is a symbol of friendship and fidelity.’
Another site describes how holly and ivy were put together to symbolize man and woman, bringing peace to a household at Christmas:
‘Considered a symbol of woman. If put together with Holly (the symbol of man) at Christmas, it would bring peace in a home between a husband and wife, for the following year. Ivy was also considered to be a sacred plant of the Greek god, Dionysus (Latin name Bacchus), the god of wine.’
At a site discussing the wiccan and witchcraft interests in ivy the following observations appear:
‘Of old, women carried ivy to aid fertility and general good luck. They also carried it to ensure fidelity and from this came the custom of brides carrying ivy. Ivy wherever it is grown or proliferates, guards against negativity and disaster. Wands entwined with ivy were used in the worship of Bacchus, and are used in nature and fertility rites. Ritually and magically the ivy is paired with the holly tree and the vine.’