For the good of ivy

Why should this climber be so ma­ligned? Robin Page de­fends his favourite plant

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Country -

Why do so many sen­si­ble peo­ple dis­like one of Bri­tain’s most beau­ti­ful na­tive plants — ivy? “Dig it up.” “Cut it down.” “Poi­son it,” they cry, as their blood pres­sure rises, and yes, they have even been known to write let­ters to The Daily Tele­graph com­plain­ing about this “par­a­site and killer of trees”.

But let’s take an­other look at ivy, the beau­ti­ful climb­ing plant that is also known by its col­lo­quial names of bind­wood and love­stone be­cause of its habit of cling­ing and climb­ing over wood and stone. It clings so tightly that coun­try lore also sug­gests that a gar­land of ivy is an aid to love.

In my win­ter gar­den it is the one plant that gives me colour and in a cold wind it also cre­ates shel­ter. At last, too, I have it climb­ing up the front wall of my house, and it is very wel­come so long as it does not pull my study win­dow out. Its sprawl­ing green leaves are help­ing to soften the harsh ap­pear­ance of 1920s cheap, mass-pro­duced brick that my grand­fa­ther used when he built this farm worker’s cot­tage. By let­ting the ivy grow, I am help­ing to quash one of the myths about ivy — that it grad­u­ally weak­ens and breaks up build­ings, pulling out the ce­ment and crum­bling the bricks. This is non­sense. Ivy sim­ply grips, grows and climbs; with good ce­ment and brick­work it causes no dam­age and ac­tu­ally does the brick­work good by keep­ing it dry.

Aban­doned build­ings do get cov­ered with ivy and it seems as if its roots and shoots as­sist in the de­mo­li­tion process, but in re­al­ity many of those an­cient build­ings were suf­fer­ing from wind, wa­ter and frost dam­age be­fore the ivy ar­rived.

In much the same way ivy is said to be a tree killer, by clam­ber­ing up healthy trees, stran­gling them and suck­ing out their sap. The facts are that ivy is not a par­a­site and takes its mois­ture and nu­tri­ents from the ground, cre­at­ing lit­tle com­pe­ti­tion for a good healthy tree. It does not “clam­ber” ei­ther, it climbs slowly and will usu­ally take more than 30 years to get near the top of its host. The main threat it poses is dur­ing gale force winds when its weight and wind re­sis­tance can help bring a weak tree down.

But the real ap­peal of ivy is as a con­ser­va­tion plant. In the gar­den, if it is al­lowed to grow on the ground, its shade will keep out weeds. And where it climbs up trees, bushes and walls, it is a plant to be en­joyed for the wildlife it at­tracts.

Ivy is one of the last flow­er­ing plants of late sum­mer and early au­tumn. It usu­ally starts in late Septem­ber and some­times goes on into Novem­ber. Its clus­ters of flow­ers are rich in nec­tar and pollen and a host of in­sects, bees and bugs use them to re­fuel be­fore win­ter. A heav­ily flow­er­ing ivy bush can be heard as well as seen as the last of the year’s wasps bum­ble bees, flies and hor­nets fly from flower to flower. Late-fly­ing but­ter­flies such as red ad­mi­rals and painted ladies are also at­tracted to the sweet feast.

But to the holly blue but­ter­fly, one of the most beau­ti­ful but­ter­flies of spring, the ivy is an im­por­tant food plant. Sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion but­ter­flies of­ten lay their eggs on ivy. The cater­pil­lars feed on the flower buds in Au­gust and Septem­ber, then hi­ber­nate as chrysalises from Septem­ber to April, when on a sunny day the first blue but­ter­flies of the year will emerge. This spring gen­er­a­tion of but­ter­flies will then lay their eggs on holly, which be­come the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of late, sum­mer but­ter­flies. Per­haps it should be called “the holly and the ivy blue”.

The dense leaves of ivy are also a favourite place for hi­ber­nat­ing brim­stone but­ter­flies, which will leave their win­ter shel­ter on a warm day in March. Win­ter shel­ter is im­por­tant for birds too. As I look at the ivy-clad trunk of a sil­ver birch from my study win­dow, I see birds of all sorts seek­ing shel­ter on rough days. This shel­ter con­tin­ues into the spring and sum­mer when the tan­gled mass of leaves and branches makes an ideal nest­ing place for a host of gar­den birds, in­clud­ing wrens, robins, long-tailed tits, black­birds, col­lared doves and wood-pi­geons. When grey squir­rels moved into one of my clumps of ivy, I have to ad­mit that I did saw through its trunk, but this was a rather ex­treme way of mov­ing the squir­rels rather than pro­tect­ing the host tree.

Be­cause ivy is late flow­er­ing, its ber­ries are just be­gin­ning to ripen now, just as the last of the hips and haws have been fin­ished. Per­fect tim­ing for wildlife. Any day now, black­birds and pi­geons will be­gin to gorge them­selves on the ber­ries.

As a lover of wildlife gar­den­ing and win­ter green, I wel­come the ivy and hope that all those who are ex­cited on see­ing their first brim­stone but­ter­fly in the spring will re­mem­ber from where it has emerged.

Host, not par­a­site: ivy pro­vides food and shel­ter for wildlife

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.