Common Ivy - Hedera helix
Throughout the winter months ivy hs been a prominent feature of the downland landscape, softening the bare outlines of the trees which crown the ridge. Although the plant may be found from Norway to Palestine, it is only in maritime countries such as our own that it climbs so vigorously as to festoon even tall trees with its lustrous dark green foliage. Look at that foliage more closely and you will see that it is of two distinct types. Where in its vegetative state, the plant creeps along the ground or uses its multitude of adhesive roots to climb the trunk of a tree, the leaves have three or five triangular lobes. When, however, the plant has climbed into the sunlight, flowering branches grow outward from the tree and these bear ovate, generally unlobed leaves.
Time was when fen folk would not take ivy into their houses - even a sprig adhering to a log taken in for fuel was considered unlucky. At one time, too, its use in the Christmas decoration of churches was condemned by the ecclesiastical authorities - ivy had too many pagan associations to be used in decorating places of Christian worship. It was, after all, an ivy wreath which crowned that most rumbustious of pagan deities, the god Bacchus.
It was the plant's association with the god of wine which led tavern keepers to advertise their wares by hanging an ivy bush outside their premises (hence the saying, 'Good wine needs no bush'). Let it not be thought, however, that the plant was associated with drunkenness - quite the reverse. It was believed in ancient days that binding the brow with ivy leaves would prevent intoxication, and in later years the herbalist Culpepper was to write that, 'There seems to be a great antipathy between wine and ivy ... if one got a surfeit by drinking of wine, his speediest cure is to drink a draught of the same wine wherein a handful of ivy leaves, being first bruised, have been boiled'.
Ivy was thus a symbol both of the pleasures of wine and of sobriety. It was also long considered an emblem of fidelity and wreaths of the plant were presented by the priests of ancient Greece to newly married couples.
The mournful romanticism of ivy's association with ancient ruins has been marked by generations of poets, including the great Wordsworth who saw it 'beautify decay' at Furness Abbey. In these less romantic but more eco-sensitive days it is highly regarded for its value to wild life. The yellowish-green flowers, produced in spherical clusters in the autumn, provide a late supply of nectar for many insects - including wasps, hoverflies and holly blue and tortoiseshell butterflies. The berries offer a welcome late winter feast for blackbirds and thrushes, and the dense foliage of mature bushes affords hidden nesting sites for, among other species, that popular favourite the wren.
Ivy is not a parasite and does no direct harm to the trees on which it grows. So, if you have it in your garden, encourage it to flourish - birds and butterflies, sobriety and faithfulness all may benefit!
One of our Friends sent us this beautiful picture of some Pasque Flowers taken in amongst the Cowslips in May 2016.
Photo by Jill Butler