Hedera helix (common ivy)
A woody climber native to Europe, common ivy has long been collected for winter decorations and is an important food-source for wildlife.
About this species
Common ivy is a popular ornamental, valued for its ability to thrive in shady places, provide excellent groundcover and cover unsightly walls, sheds and tree stumps. Many cultivars are available, including variegated forms that can be used to brighten shady depths of winter gardens.
Long collected for winter decorations, common ivy is associated with Christmas and frequently features in festive designs. It is also an important source of food and shelter for wildlife during winter.
Ivy is not a parasite, does not normally damage sound buildings or walls, and is rarely a threat to healthy trees. Regular trimming can prevent ivy becoming too heavy, a problem that can be exacerbated by the additional weight of rain and snow.
Geography & Distribution
Hedera helix is native to western, central and southern Europe. Its distribution extends from southern Scandinavia (Norway and Sweden) in the north to Latvia and the Ukraine in the east and southeast to Bulgaria, western Turkey, Greece (including Crete) and Cyprus. It is found up to about 515 m above sea level.
Common ivy is an invasive species in Australia, New Zealand and western USA.
Juvenile leaves of Hedera helix
Overview: A woody climber (liana) with distinct juvenile and mature stages, both with evergreen leaves; the juvenile stage usually has lobed leaves and rooting stems, and the mature stage has rootless, flowering shoots with unlobed leaves. Stems are purple-green.
Juvenile leaves: Dark green, leathery, 3–5-lobed, the two basal lobes reduced in size to give the typical ivy-leaf shape. Dotted with white, star-shaped hairs.
Adult leaves: Unlobed, markedly narrower on shoots exposed to light.
Flowers: Borne in spherical clusters, each held on a stalk (peduncle), with a proteinaceous scent. From September to November.
Fruits: Yellow-orange to black berries, up to 9 mm in diameter, each containing five seeds.
Hedera helix f. poetarum is a form with dull orange fruits, found in the Mediterranean and known as poet’s ivy or Italian ivy.
Common ivy and wildlife
Ivy berries are a favoured winter food for blackbirds and if not eaten remain on the plant until spring, providing an important food-source for young birds. Branches and leaves of Hedera helix also provide shelter and nesting sites for birds, and a ready supply of insects can be found living on and around them.
Hedera helix flowers open late in the year (September to November) and are pollinated by insects such as wasps and moths. They are an important source of nectar and pollen for bees when other sources such as heather are not available.
Hedera helix 'Pennsylvanica'
Common ivy is a popular ornamental, and many cultivars are available, including non-climbing ones for ground cover and compact forms for potted plants. Being evergreen and shade-loving, ivy is perfect for winter gardens and can form an attractive covering for garden structures. Ivy was a fashionable ornamental in Victorian Britain and represented fidelity in the ‘language of flowers’.
Hedera helix is frequently used in cut flower arrangements, particularly in winter displays. The custom of decorating homes with ivy and evergreens dates back to pre-Christian times when they were associated with the power of the eternal and represented continuation of life through the winter.
Early herbalists, having seen common ivy smothering grape vines, held the belief that ivy berries could counteract the unwanted side-effects of alcohol consumption. Hedera helix has in the past been used in the treatment of verrucas, warts and corns.
Ivy wood has been used as a substitute for boxwood (Buxus sempervirens). The glossy, cream, ivory-like heartwood is sometimes used in flower arrangements.
Young twigs were formerly a source of dyes, and it is said that a red dye can be obtained from the berries when boiled with alum.
Ivy is browsed by cattle and sometimes used as an emergency winter fodder.
Common ivy as a symbol
In ancient Rome, ivy was a symbol of intellectual achievement and ivy wreathes were used to crown winners of poetry contests. They were also given to victorious athletes in ancient Greece.
The Roman custom of hanging a branch with leaves (often ivy because it was readily available, and the leaves, being evergreen, lasted a long time) on a pole to indicate that the premises sold wine or ale spread throughout Europe in the Middle Ages and became known as an alepole or alestake.
Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage
The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.
See Kew’s Seed Information Database for further information on Hedera helix seeds.
Where ivy is grown on structures, it should be clipped over every other year to ensure the growth does not become too heavy.
This species at Kew
Many cultivars of Hedera helix can be seen growing up the boundary wall adjacent to Kew’s Order Beds. Common ivy and other climbers can be seen adorning the brick walls of Kew’s School of Horticulture. A well-established ivy hedge can be seen around Kew's Palm House.
Dried and alcohol-preserved specimens of Hedera helix are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers by appointment. Details of some of these can be seen online in Kew’s Herbarium Catalogue.
Specimens of wood, bark, resin, seeds and fruits of Hedera helix, in addition to a wooden walking stick made from it, are held in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection, where they are available to researchers by appointment.
Kew’s research on the use of wild plants in England and Scotland
Research at Kew has found that wild ivy continues to be collected and sold for Christmas decorations. Kew’s scientists even found one individual in England (East Sussex) using wild plants such as bulrush, ivy and plantain to produce woven rings and brooches.
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