The Common Ivy--Hedera helix

The common ivy belongs to the family Araliaceae and the Order Apiales and placed in the genus Hedera it is given the specific name of helix meaning to twist around. The Ivy grows in all parts of Britain and occurs up to 1500 feet above sea level. It grows in open woods, banks, hollows, climbing trees and covering walls. It is very common in gardens and often found growing on the structure of houses.

Image Courtesy of Dr.Thome's Flora 1840 {BHL}

Description of the common Ivy.

Common ivy climbs by means of fibrous root-like structures which emerge from every part of the stem, and are furnished with small discs ate the end which adapt themselves to the roughness of the bark or wall against which they grow.

The foliage of ivy has two variants-- the familiar 3-5 lobed leaves which are 50-100 mm long having stalks 20 mm+ in length. However, when the plant reaches a good light as it elevates, or along the flowering shoots the leaves are simple and egg shaped. The flowering stems are erect. 

Left the familiar leaf shape of ivy on the right the egg shaped foliage that is produced when the plant reaches good light and along the flowering stems.

Photograph by Dal.

The flowers are borne on simple, erect raceme-like umbels, they are more or less rounded, with stellate hairs.. The bracts are small and hollow. The flower stalks are fairly long. The flowers are greenish-yellow. The calyx teeth are triangular the calyx have five teeth. The five petals do not unite above, and are triangular to egg shaped. There are five stamens; the ovary is five celled; the styles are short, united at the base with terminal stigma's. The flowers are late to bloom from September to October. These nectar rich flowers are fed upon by hoverflies, wasps and 70 other species of insects including beetles, holly blue and swallow tailed moths.

The fruit {berry} is more or less rounded, green at first -then yellow and ultimately black. They are 5-celled-5 seeded, crowned with a calyx. the five seeds contained in each berry are egg shaped.

The ripe berries are eagerly taken by at least 16 species of birds notably thrushes and wood pigeon during January and February when few other berries are available. This tenacious plant can, with support, attain the height of 60 feet or more.

Myths and Tradition

                 " To pipe in an ivy leaf " is to engage in a futile pursuit.

                " An Owl in an ivy bush" denotes union of wisdom with conviviality

The ivy bush was once a common sign on Taverns {Inns} giving rise to the old adage--Good wine needs no bush. According to Cornish tradition, the beautiful Iseult, unable to endure the loss of her brave Tristan, died of a broken heart. They were buried in the same church yard. On the order of the king they were buried some distance apart. Soon after, however, there burst forth from the tomb of Tristan a branch of ivy, and another from the tomb of Iseult.

These shoots gradually met an entwined, the lovers represented by the twining ivy, were together again, beneath the vaulted roof of heaven.

In the past ivy was much used as Christmas decorations { As holly is today}. It was considered as a useful ornamental plant for covering buildings lending a picturesque look. Greek priests presented a wreath of ivy to newly married couples and through the ages it was regarded as an emblem of fidelity. 

Ivy roots and stems growing on a tree.

Photograph by Dal.

Historical facts

William Coles 1612-1662, in his book Adam in Eden or Nature's Paradise, 1657, describes the ivy in this manner--- " Ivy have a woody trunk, or body sometimes as big as a man's arms, usually climbing trees, and by roots it sendeth into them, draweth nourishment from them, many times to their bane, and utter ruin. 

Some times it creepeth up walls, sending roots forth into the chinks and joynts, where growing great, they often crack them to their destruction. After it hath gotten hold on either tree or wall, it will grow there on though the body be cut away."

Ivy does not do the tree of bark any harm and the discs on the bark do not compete for nutrients. However, ivy gets established in the boughs and canopy, where the mass of it can become an unbearable weight on the branches and can easily bring the canopy crashing down, especially in high winds.

Ivy growing on walls and hoses tend to extract the moisture out of the bricks and stones, and especially the mortar which eventually comes away causing structural decline. If ivy is aloud to get to the roof it will grow under the tiles and lift them, ultimately  causing great damage. However, on really old walls made of stone, especially those of some elevation, the enveloping stems of ivy, may be the only thing holding them erect, thus removing the ivy , may mean completely rebuilding the wall. {Dal}

Back to William Coles description of the ivy --" While the ivy is young, the leaves of most will be cornered, but when it groweth elder, they grow rounder, abiding fresh and green winter and summer. The small mossie yellow flowers, stand in an umbel upon small stalks, after which come small round berries, first green, afterwards turning black. In everyone of which, is contained usually four seeds. It sometimes, though rarely , groweth alone by itself, into a pretty bush or tree.

Ivy berries  follow the flowers

Courtesy of Syrio CC BY-SA 4.0 License.

Historical medicinal facts.

Ivy is poisonous and the following content is for historical interest. This information comes from a book published in 1657.

" A pugil of the flowers of ivy, { being as much as one can take up with their three foremost fingers together} which may be about a dram, saith Dioscorides, drunk twice daily in red wine, helpeth the lask and bloody flux. It is an enemy to the nerves and sinews, being taken inwardly, but it is helpful unto them applyed outwardly.

The juice of the leaves and berries. with a little oyl of bitter almonds, dropped in the ears, whilst its warm, helpeth the hearing and cureth all the old and running sores of them. The berries made into a powder, and drunk in wine, help to break the stone, provoketh urine, and women's courses, as Traith saith 2 Yea so powerfully they are in those parts, that a bath made of leaves and berries for women to fit in , or over the fumes, or a pessary made of them, and put up, doth mightily prevail to bring them down, and to draw forth the dead birth and after birth, but this is to be cautiously used and only in cases of extremity."

The fresh leaves of ivy , boyled in vinegar and applyed warm to the sides of those which are splenetick, or troubled with any ache or stitch in their sides, doth give them much ease. The juice of the berries or leaves snuffed up the nose, purgeth the head and brain of rheum, which maketh defluctions into the eyes and nose, and cureth the ulcers and stonch therein.

The wood made into a cup and used by those that are troubled with the spleen, shall find and much holpen thereof. Cato saith, if you suspect your wine to have any water in it , put some of it into a cup made of ivy wood, and it will soak through the water and the water remain, such is the apathy between them " 



All parts of ivy are poisonous and should never be taken internally. Beware when cutting ivy, for the sap can cause skin eruptions and contact dermatitis  with some people due to the allergen Falcarinol.

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