Today we're looking at ivy (Hedera), one of the trio of plants that mark the festive season. (We've already discussed the other two, mistletoe and holly.) It can be a misunderstood and unloved plant. Let’s try to change that.

[N.B. We’re talking about the ivy whose botanical name is Hedera. We're not talking about other plants which go by the name of ivy but which aren’t – ground ivy, poison ivy and Boston ivy, for example.]

Ivy in the garden

Ivy is a great workhorse in the garden because it’s evergreen, attracts wildlife and is good on north-facing walls and in areas where nothing else will grow. There are also many cultivars with different leaf shapes and/or variegated foliage. (Variegated plants need some sunshine to really shine.)

This plant is a great choice to hide ugly walls, fences and tree stumps. It’s a reliable and colourful self-clinging climber if you choose the right variety and remember to prune it correctly. It’s not parasitic (like mistletoe) and doesn’t harm trees but it can damage weak mortar and pebbledash. Clip it twice a year in spring and summer so it does not damage the structure on which it is climbing. Make sure you don't let it get into gutters because it will clog them up and use them as a springboard to get under the tiles or slates.

Ivy scrambles happily over areas of poor soil, rolls out a bright carpet or lightens ground between shrubs in the winter. Persian ivy, Hedera colchica ‘Dentata Variegata’, could be a good choice with its large yellow-edged leaves. Hedera canariensis ‘Gloire de Marengo’ with its red stems and large yellow-splashed leaves is also good, although it’s not completely hardy in cold areas. For quick cover with large glossy leaves, choose the vigorous Atlantic or Irish ivy, Hedera hibernica, one of two native ivies.

The other native ivy is common ivy, Hedera helix, which has a number of interesting cultivars. ‘Buttercup’ has bright all-yellow leaves, for example, and ‘Goldheart’ is green with a yellow centre. ‘Green Ripple’ has wavy edges and ‘Caenwoodiana’ shows white veins on its dark green leaves.

Young and adult forms – and wildlife

Juvenile leaves look rather like a spread hand with between three and five distinct triangular lobes. The young climbing stems are slender and flexible with small aerial roots that fix the shoot to a surface.

ivy

Juvenile leaves of common ivy, Bern, Switzerland. © Muriel Bendel and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/

Adult leaves are oval or elliptical, a quite different shape. They are found on fertile flowering stems exposed to full sun. Adult stems are thicker, self-supporting and do not have roots.

ivy

Ripening ivy berries and adult leaves, Gallowstree Common, Oxfordshire. © Edmund Shaw and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/ Thanks to the Geograph project. geograph.og.uk/p/4285531

From autumn to early winter adult ivy produces greenish-yellow flowers with five small petals. These are rich in nectar so they are very popular with bees, butterflies, hoverflies and other insects. Ivy provides a place for insects to overwinter.

Many birds (thrush, blackbird, wood pigeon, blackcap and robin, to name a few) like the greenish-black, dark purple ivy berries which ripen from late winter to mid-spring. Come spring, thick ivy could be a good nesting site.

Ivy is often used as a reliable evergreen in container planting. It has much more potential, though, and could offer just what you need in the garden.