Overlooked by many – and wrongly reviled by others, ivy plays a vital role in the natural landscape and makes a terrific garden plant, writes Flo Whitaker
Only a few evergreen plants are indigenous to the British Isles. Common ivy (Hedera helix) is one of them. Ivy has a curious, two-stage growing process. Young growth makes dense, non-flowering mats of foliage. On maturity, it becomes arboreal, (tree like) and starts climbing; producing distinctively rounded leaves, pollen-rich yellow flowers in late autumn, followed by charcoal/black berries throughout winter.
These high-energy foods provides sustenance for wildlife at times when other food sources are scarce. Contrary to popular belief, ivy does not ‘strangle’ trees, but its sheer weight and wind resistance can inadvertently damage trees and structures. An occasional and judicious cutback of ivy growth will keep things in check.
Like those other Yuletide sentinels; fir, holly and mistletoe, ivy held great significance for our ancestors. Its ability to thrive in winter won it noble attributes of strength, stoicism and eternal life. Pagan Green Man images often depict him wreathed in an ivy crown. At a modern day wedding, ivy still retains a presence; in a floral display, or in motif form, embroidered onto a veil or iced onto a cake. Those twining stems that have long represented fidelity and ‘ties that bind’ are still quietly weaving their ancient magic.
No winter garden is complete without ivy and there are many varieties to choose from. ‘Gold Heart’ has striking dark leaves with buttery yellow centre markings that positively glow under gloomy skies. ‘Sulphur Heart’ is super-vigorous and superhardy, (down to -15°C, or more). It will quickly climb a wall or establish itself as ground cover in challenging places where other plants fail. The huge leaves can reach 20cms in length and are richly marbled with prominent creamy/white veins. It requires regular cutting back to keep it under control, but is a sensational plant for a winter garden and makes a stunning focal point when grown over an arch.
Small-leaved ivies are invaluable for winter-themed patio pots and hanging baskets as they grow slowly during cold conditions and will not swamp dainty gems such as violas and cyclamen.
Hedera ‘Ducks Foot’ is well-named. Its soft sage green leaves have rounded edges that resemble the webbed shape of a ducks foot, whereas ‘Sagittifolia’ has dense, arrow-shaped foliage in deepest holly green and is particularly useful for topiary work. If you’re an anxious topiary newbie, a small ivy plant and a simple pre-formed wire topiary frame is a good way to start. Plant the ivy, then set the frame over the top. As the ivy grows up through the frame, simply snip the stems to maintain the desired shape.
You don’t need fancy pruning shears. A robust pair of kitchen scissors will do the job and, if you make an error – never mind. Immortal ivy will soon outgrow a bad haircut.