ENGLISH IVY (Hedera helix)

Europe, W Asia to Iran


Glossy GREEN leaves of this climber, which we know as English Ivy, offer gardeners an evergreen backdrop for other plants. But this is also a bees’ favourite. Easy to grow all year round, Hedera helix can reach 50 feet or more in sun or shade. But you can shape its size to suit your own garden, patio, or windowbox.

The plant clings by tendrils & aerial roots, climbing up trees, walls & fences and providing ground cover. Hedera helix grows in sun or shade & is unfussy about soil, but prefers it to be alkaline & not waterlogged.

Young ivy leaves have 3 to 5 lobes, while the mature plant ( 10 yrs or older) has bushy, free-standing sprays of oval to diamond-shaped leaves. Flowers on stalks become berries late in the season, much valued by birds in winter when food is scarce.

More than 140 species of insect and 17 species of bird feed on ivy in Britain, and countless others appreciate its evergreen shelter. People can benefit from ivies too; their ‘ecosystem services’ are becoming increasingly recognised. When grown on walls, recent research has demonstrated that ivy keeps buildings cooler in summer and less damp in winter. Growing ivies around our homes also improves air quality by trapping particulates.  Hedera (ivy) /RHS Gardening


Hedera helix is common in woods & hedges throughout Europe & western Asia. YELLOW-GREEN flowers, rich in nectar, appear during autumn on mature plants, followed by  BLACK berries.



Hedera helix is the essential plant for a wildlife-friendly garden, according to naturalist and environmentalist Chris Baines in his book HOW TO MAKE A WILDLIFE GARDEN. Read more about this book on our Websites and Other Resources page.


” Of all the climbing plants you could possibly grow, there is no doubt in my mind about which is the best for wildlife. Ivy. No wonder the ancient Brits thought it had magical properties.

Jersey Tiger on Ivy leaf

Comma, Nettle, Ivy

First of all, it is really very easy to grow. It likes shade best, and a reasonably rich soil, but in fact it will grow pretty well anywhere. It grows up vertical surfaces without any need for wires or bits of string, though it sometimes needs a bit of encouragement at first…

The great thing about Ivy as a wildlife climber is the variety of ways in which it supports wild creatures. Being evergreen, it provides very good cover throughout the year, of course, and an ivy-covered wall is a favourite nesting site for wrens.  Blackbirds often build in older ivy, too.

Speckled Wood on Ivy leaf

Ivy is particularly important as wildlife cover in the winter, with several species of butterfly hibernating amongst its leaves…

Ivy doesnt’t stop at physical protection either. Its flowers last longer into the winter than almost any other British plant, often carrying golden blobs of sweet life-giving nectar right through into December. It only flowers once it reaches maturity, and it seems to need to climb up to at least a metre or so…

After the flowers come the fruit, and again the ivy is terrific. Most years the clusters of berry-like fruits are only ripening to their mature purple/black stage at the end of the winter, when most other natural foods such as hips and haws have been eaten up.

… People worry terribly about the effect on their buildings of climbers such as ivy. All sorts of stories circulate about demolished masonry. The fact is that climbers are much more likely to protect your brickwork. insulating it from the effects of frost and direct sunshine. “

Chris advises training climbers on wires or screening held in position a few inches  from wall or fence. Drawing by Chris Baines shows possible places for butterfly, blackbird & snail behind a climber, held proud of a wall by wires. (Chapter 5, Hedgerows and climber-covered screens.)

Chris Baines, How to Make a Wildlife Garden, Elm Tree Books/Hamish Hamilton Ltd. 1985, Revised edition Frances Lincoln, 2000.


Two 1988 youtube videos show, step by step, how Chris did it.

The Making of a Wildlife Garden – part one  – youtube/mozilla firefox  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qG0aCIbw5Wk

The Making of a Wildlife Garden – part two – youtube/mozilla firefox  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VDZ3-NkA8UM


Holly Blue Butterfly

Row 6 No 5 - Masonry or Mining Bee on Ivy

Swallow-tailed butterfly. Larvae feed on trees and shrubs. but prefer Ivy. UK Moths

If you let your Ivy grow to maturity, more wildlife can make use of it. Ivy that is constantly clipped does not flower. Insects visiting Ivy flowers include Moths, Butterflies (Red Admiral, Speckled Wood, Holly Blue & Comma), Honeybees & other bees.

Red Admiral, Butterfly Conservation.org

In our garden, Wrens dive into the Ivy to forage for spiders and small insects, as do Robins, Sparrows & Bluetits. Ivy  berries are an important food source for birds in winter, when little else may be available to them.

Plume Moth – when disturbed they fly to the Ivy & hide on the underside of a leaf.

“Research has shown that trees with ivy growing up them accomodate more wildlife than those without. Instead of assuming that all ivy must be cut away, it is better to be pragmatic about it. Investigate first whether it is really causing any damage. Most healthy trees can withstand at least some ivy growth before being cut back. The wildlife will appreciate it!”


Ivy wall, Male Fern in front and Ash behind.jpg

‘Gardeners Urged to Let Ivy Flourish to Save Bees’

 Growing ivy in gardens may help to prevent the decline of honeybees

‘Scientists have found that Ivy is one of the most important plants to provide nectar for bees. They found that honey bees rely upon ivy for the majority of the pollen and nectar they collect during the autumn months, a crucial time when the insects are trying to build up stores for the winter and feed their young.

Mature Ivy in flower, September 2014The researchers are now urging gardeners not to rip up ivy when tidying their gardens this summer. Honeybees have suffered large declines in Britain with numbers halving in the last 25 years while wild bees such as bumblebees are also suffering.’   Science Correspondent Richard Gray, in his April 25 2013 column for The Telegraph

Richard Gray quotes Guy Barter, chief adviser at the RHS: ‘As gardens have become smaller, old buildings have disappeared and gardeners become more tidy minded, I suspect the amount of mature ivy has been decreasing’… http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/beekeeping/10206225/Radar-antennae-reveal-how-disease-and-pesticides-are-harming-bees-navigation.html

Scientists at The University of Sussex want to encourage the public to identify insects that visit Ivy flowers, to help monitor pollinator numbers. By tapping into their website you can take part, read about their work and download their pamphlet Appreciating Ivy and its Insects


Traditional and Historical

Roman wreath, Metropolitan Museum of Art

‘Ivy’ by Alphonse Mucha, 1901, Wikipedia

Ivy was sacred to Dionysius (Bacchus), the god of wine; if bound to the brow, it was supposed to prevent intoxication. Wreaths of Ivy symbolize fidelity and were part of the marriage ceremony in ancient Greece. They were banned by the early Christian church as a pagan custom.”

RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs, Deni Bown, 2008


Dionysus is usually depicted holding a Thyrsus, a staff, sceptre or wand made from a stout, hollow fennel stem, topped with a pine cone and wound about with ivy. Revellers who worshipped the god carried these as torches, setting fire to them in the night and leading the way in wild, wine fuelled dances. Only when they are bound with ivy leaves do they truly become magic.

The Ogham Trees – Ivy – Gort _ Mozilla Firefox





Using ivy as decoration also dates back to the time of the Romans, who associated it with Bacchus (the Roman equivalent of the Greek Dionysus, god of wine and intoxication). Ivy was a symbol of fidelity and marriage, and was often wound into a crown, wreath or garland. It also served as a symbol of prosperity and charity, and thus it was adopted by the early Christians, for whom it was a reminder to help the less fortunate.

In early England, it was considered bad luck to use ivy alone in decorating for Christmas, and would give the woman of the house the upper hand.

To the ancient Celts, for whom the winter solstice was cause for both celebration and fear, evergreens were a symbol of hope and rebirth. The Celts believed that by bringing evergreens indoors they were providing a haven for woodland spirits through the winter months. Evergreen plants like holly, ivy and mistletoe were thought to ward off misfortune and bring protection and luck.

Holly and ivy were the primary greens used to decorate English churches beginning no later than the 15th and 16th centuries, and were mentioned in the accounts of churchwardens of that time, according to Steve Roud, an expert on English folklore and superstition. ”       Gwen Bruno, Dave’s Garden website





 In ancient Egypt ivy was dedicated to Osiris, who represented immortality.

In Germany, it is traditional that ivy is only used outside and a piece tied to the outside of a church was supposed to protect it from lightning.

Greek brides wore traditional wedding veils of yellow or red, which represented fire. These brightly colored veils were supposed to protect the bride from evil spirits and demons… A Greek bride may carry a lump of sugar on her wedding day to ensure she has a sweet life, or she might carry ivy, as a symbol of endless love. Best country: Greek wedding traditions – Mozilla Firefox


‘diy christmas ivy – star wreath thethingsshemakes.blogspot


Ivy is commonly associated with Christmas, along with its counterpart Holly. As evergreen species, both plants were used to ‘ward off evil spirits’, with sprigs being picked & brought inside to keep house goblins at bay. It has also been a tradition to place a sprig of ivy within a bride’s bouquet, as it is thought that ivy symbolises fidelity, loyalty and support within a marriage.  Hedgerow species #8 – Ivy / Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group South West Ltd.

In the Victorian Language of Flowers, Ivy was indeed seen to symbolise fidelity and marriage.

“The plant has featured in European culture for centuries. Ivy can be found in ancient Irish, Norwegian and Germanic images, and played an important role in the past because it’s evergreen. During long winters with little light, ivy in the home offered a spark of hope that spring would come again.”  https://www.thejoyofplants.co.uk/ivy”


Ivy Tree Greeting Cards- Celtic 27th September – 30th October – ebay


Hedera Helix NASA Approved

‘It has been proven by NASA (The National Aeronautics and Space Administration) that keeping English Ivy as an indoor plant could result in good air quality in your surroundings. This is because they are best at absorbing formaldehyde coming out of electronics or laptops and it also cleans up other harmful toxins. Thus, making an excellent environment for your indoor spaces.’


One of 11 Best Feng Shui Plants in India

In Feng Shui, this is one of the few plants that protects those around it. The sharp leaves are believed to block negative energies from entering homes.

The three points in each leaf are lucky since the number three is a number symbolising luck and builds stronger relationships among families. English Ivy is great for llandscaping and is one of the best air purifying plants to remove toxins from your surroundings. English Ivy thrives in the presence of carbon dioxide and therefore is the perfect city plant to cleanse the air around you.

Beauty: The beautiful vines and the delicate looking leaves add a great visual everywhere it grows.

Placement: Growing this plant on windowsills and to hang from pots allows for a lovely lush feeling of prosperity. The plant can grow both indoors and outdoors but will require a good amount of sunlight.

Main Advantages: Healing and protecting those around it, the English Ivy also allows you to get in touch with your negative emotions and spiritually heal your mind.

Special Care: The leaves are poisonous and must never be ingested. The Plant is very easy to grow..   PlantDecors Blog – Mozilla Firefox


Jack in the Green, 1795 engraving, possibly by Isaac Cruikshank, Wikipedia

Jack in the Green, Hastings, Mayday 2017footage from the procession in Hastings Old Town, West Sussex


video by Bertrand Wattle

The English tradition of Jack in the Green is not forgotten. Videos of the annual Hastings May Day parades have been put out on youtube – a treat for the housebound during lockdown days. Plenty of ivy here & a great burst of Mayday in under 3 minutes.

“And we’re all met again on the first day of spring
To go about dancing with Jack in the Green
Jack in the Green, Jack in the Green
To go about dancing with Jack in the Green”

English folk song


Jack is a colourful figure, almost 3m tall ( 9ft. 8in tall), covered in greenery and flowers. …he is accompanied by two attendants, representing the legendary figures of Robin Hood and Maid Marian. In Hastings, he is also accompanied by attendants, here known as Bogeys, who are completely disguised in green rags, vegetation and face paint. The attendants play music, dance and sing as they guide Jack through the streets to celebrate the coming of summer.” Wikipedia

Other names: Atlantic Ivy, Bergflétta, bentwood, bindwood, common ivy, Crimean Ivy, Efeu, European Ivy, gort, gum ivy, ifig, Irish Ivy, ivory, ivy gum plant, lablab, kissos, lovestone, love united, true ivy, winter-green, winter-grunt, woodbine.

Hedera Vetch, Ivy leaf, digital bumblebeeHighbury – Too Much of a Good Thing

In our garden there is Ivy on every wall, climbing and carpeting – it seems to have its own ruling sprite, who we call Hedera Vetch. Whenever a place appears that could do with a new plant, HV will be whispering ‘Wouldn’t ivy go well here? So little maintenance, always looks smart.. a perfect backdrop for every shrub & flower…. ‘


RF, our first gardener, planted Ivy along our brick walls. Over the years it has provided shelter for many creatures, berries for birds & nectar for bees in the shank of the year… Thank you, RF!

If there are changes in your life – you find yourself spending less time in the garden, or you are ill, or need to be somewhere else – be warned, Hedera helix left on its own can take over.   Here, our rose became enveloped by the wall of ivy below it. Much pruning, lopping & sawing had to be done to the ivy to free the rose.