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