From a cure for the ef­fects of al­co­hol to a witch re­pel­lant, what is the truth about ivy? Pip Web­ster re­veals all...

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The truth and myths about ivy

The holly and the ivy” boasts the prow­ess of the holly tree, but ivy wins for both win­ter food and shel­ter for our wildlife. From preChris­tian times, ev­er­greens have rep­re­sented the power of eter­nal life and Ivy is the god­dess who car­ries life through the win­ter. Early Chris­tians con­tin­ued the Ro­man and Norse cus­toms of dec­o­rat­ing their houses with these fresh, green life sym­bols that mag­i­cally fruited in mid-win­ter.

Ivy was a kindly, fem­i­nine, plant with its cling­ing habits and, in con­junc­tion with ‘male’ holly, would bring fer­til­ity to the whole house­hold. Un­for­tu­nate ‘Bac­cha­na­lian’ as­so­ci­a­tions (with booze) had to be ig­nored for if it grew on the wall of a house, the in­hab­i­tants were be­lieved to be safe from witches.

The only ev­er­green woody vine grow­ing in Bri­tain, ivy uses trees and walls as scaf­fold­ing. Nu­mer­ous short stump-like roots are grouped along its brit­tle stem, clamp­ing on to its sup­port by means of ad­he­sive discs. Ivy lives to­tally non-par­a­sit­i­cally and only puts out true, feed­ing roots when it en­coun­ters soil or a deep crevice. The fo­liage pro­vides a dense shel­ter for birds and small mam­mals and is also browsed by deer. Our an­ces­tors found ivy leaves use­ful from top to toe, pre­vent­ing hair from fall­ing out and cur­ing corns.

The char­ac­ter­is­tic fivelobed ivy leaf only oc­curs on creep­ing and climb­ing veg­e­ta­tive shoots. Flow­er­ing shoots are pro­duced from stems ex­posed to full sun and have sim­ple egg-shaped leaves with pointed ends. They lack climb­ing roots so they spread out in a loose bush shape or hang ver­ti­cally. The yel­low-green flow­ers open from Septem­ber to De­cem­ber and are one of the few re­main­ing rich sources of nec­tar for nu­mer­ous wasps, bees, flies and moths. Ivy nec­tar is par­tic­u­larly favoured by worker wasps as a last feast be­fore they die with the on­set of the colder weather.

Pur­ple-black berries, each con­tain­ing one to five seeds, ripen later in win­ter and pro­vide an im­por­tant food for many birds: black­birds and the other mem­bers of the thrush fam­ily, wood pi­geons and robins all join the feast. But I wouldn’t rec­om­mend fol­low­ing their ex­am­ple: the name ivy comes from an old Ger­manic word, ifig, mean­ing bit­ter, from the taste of the fruits. Ivy’s abil­ity to smother grapevines per­suaded early herbal­ists that its berries could over­come the ma­lign ef­fects of al­co­hol (no – they don’t work). Also as­so­ci­ated with the god of wine, ivy­cov­ered poles (ale-stakes) were used to ad­ver­tise tav­erns in me­dieval times.

Thrushes are plump, small to medium-sized birds in­hab­it­ing wooded ar­eas. They of­ten feed on the ground and are fairly om­niv­o­rous, eat­ing a range of small in­ver­te­brates and fruit. Many have speck­led breasts, though in some species, such as our com­mon Black­bird, males are unspot­ted and clearly dif­fer­ent to fe­males. Most thrushes are fairly uni­form in size and shape and many are grouped in a sin­gle genus ( Tur­dus), one of the most species-rich gen­era in the world with many ex­cel­lent song­sters.

Four species breed in the UK (Black­bird, Song Thrush, Mis­tle Thrush – and the small black­bird-like Ring Ouzel that is pri­mar­ily found well away from nav­i­ga­ble wa­ter­ways in up­land re­gions) and they are joined by two Euro­pean mi­grants for the win­ter.

Red­wings and Field­fares (pic­tured) usu­ally oc­cur in flocks that wan­der the coun­try­side, feed­ing in fields and hedgerows. Red­wings are slightly smaller than Song Thrushes, with a bold yel­low­ish-white eye stripe and a fringe of rus­set vis­i­ble where wing and flanks meet. In flight, this shows as the rich rus­se­tred un­der­wing which gives the bird its name. Field­fares are larger birds – much like Mis­tle Thrushes in gen­eral size, shape and be­hav­iour – with a grey hood ex­tend­ing to a chestnut back, a pure grey rump, black tail and legs. The cin­na­mon coloured breast has dark brown spots, fad­ing to white on the belly.

It is sup­posed to be a sign of bad weather to come when a large flock of Field­fares ar­rives early. Could there be a White Christmas..?

‘Pur­ple-black berries ripen later in win­ter and pro­vide a feast for many birds in­clud­ing mem­bers of the thrush fam­ily’

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