March’s subject is ivy. “Ha”, you’re thinking, “she’s lost the plot, ivy is a Christmas subject”. Well in a way it is, because it was a chance comment overheard at Christmas that set me thinking that I might make ivy a subject for one of these articles.
We live in a low-ceilinged cottage which has some serious-looking old meat-hooks hanging down from the beams. At Christmas these are festooned with balls of ivy, to stop Christmas revellers poking their eyes out on them. We always choose ivy which has large clusters of berries, to give maximum festive effect. However, flowers and berries do not grow on ivy when it is hugging the ground. They only form once the shoots have left the ground and climbed skywards enough to receive the light required to produce them.
The leaves on berried ivy are a different shape from the familiar “ivy-leaved” leaves that grow nearer to the ground. This is because ivy is one of the few plants that changes the shape of its leaves as it grows older. New-growth leaves are triangular, whilst more mature stems bear narrower, diamond-shaped leaves.
Mature ivy is very important for wildlife. The older stems bush out when they reach the sun and can shelter a wide variety of birds and insects, particularly robins and butterflies, who often spend the winter here. Blackbirds enjoy eating the berries, and insects are offered a leafy meal. Ivy handily grows throughout the year, so there’s always something to munch on. One creature dependent on ivy leaves is the holly blue butterfly. The first brood of its caterpillars feeds on holly, but the second brood of the year feeds on ivy, then waits over the winter ready to emerge from its pupae in the early spring. These beautiful little characters could just as easily be named ivy blues.
Unfortunately ivy gets a bad name. Many gardeners try to take it down because of the fiercely-gripping aerial roots which attach the stems to walls and tree-trunks. Although ivy may weaken a tree it doesn’t kill it, in fact it is just as likely to hold up a frail old specimen, as to act like a sail and bring down a weak one in the wind.
If you love wildlife, try to love ivy. Its shallow flowers give access to all; flies, midges, bees and wasps are all invited to take a drink. It flowers late, sometimes into December, and is one of the last nectar sources for insects before winter sets in.