I is for Ivy

IMG_3992I challenge you to find one person on the planet that has never heard of or seen Ivy in all its glorious forms.  Ivy (Hedera sp.) is famous, even infamous to the dwellers of the British Isles who either voluntarily grow this wonderful plant, or spend their days cursing and ripping it from walls and trees on their property…as if it were no more than a weed or a nuisance!  <tut tut>

Growth and Cultivation

What can I say without patronising or teaching people to suck eggs??! Everyone knows what Ivy looks like.  It creeps, it crawls, and it climbs, winds and binds up and around anything it touches.  Ivy can grow much like a tree up against taller, sturdy structures or can be quite dainty and petite.  Most, if not all species and forms of Ivy have tripinnate leaves which are usually the darkest green but are commonly planted in our gardens in their more decorative variegated forms.  We grow it outdoors and indoors and Ivy is nothing if not hardy and robust, tolerating cool shade as found in British woodland and will tolerate damp as well as drought conditions…in fact Ivy has been said to ‘dry’ areas of damp

Ivy, or more specifically English Ivy (Hedera helix) is evergreen and grows from a central prostrate ‘crown’ from which several creeping stems run outwards and upwards.  As soon as they touch something they can cling on or wrap themselves around and begin to ramble using host plants and structures as supports.  Do not listen to rumours that Ivy causes damage however.  Contrary to popular misconception, Ivy is not a parasite and is a perfectly self-sustaining organism, Ivy does not weaken trees or damage property and studies have actually shown that an exterior wall with ivy growing up it will actually insulate the house keeping it cool in the summer and warm and dry in winter.   The only reason Ivy may cause damage is because it can cause a ‘wind sail’ effect when growing high and dense in trees, the wind catches the Ivy and instead of passing through the branches of the host tree the wind instead buffets against the Ivy which may indirectly cause damage. 

Ivy in the Garden

Ivy in the Garden

Every garden should have English Ivy in it somewhere in my opinion; especially if you have a bland north facing wall which nothing else will grow up…Ivy is perfect.  It is one of the best plants for wildlife providing food as berries in early spring, and nectar for pollinating insects from its flowers often after everything else has finished.  Being an evergreen Ivy provides shelter and habitat for birds and insects over winter…In my opinion, Ivy is one of the most ecologically valuable plants we have in the British Isles but sadly one of the most maligned and overlooked.

Lore and Magic

There are no culinary uses for Ivy and whilst I’m sure it has some uses in herbal medicine, I haven’t used or experienced any of these, so would refer anyone interested in Ivy’s healing attributes to a qualified professional.

Ivy in the House

Ivy in the House

However, what I do use Ivy for and what I will discuss is Ivy’s applications in both lore and magic.

Coming up to the Yule tide season, a piece on Ivy couldn’t be more apt, after all most of us will be familiar with the traditional Christmas Carol ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ which contains much Pagan and Christian symbolism

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir

Being evergreen Ivy reminds us of the eternal spirit and life everlasting, just like Pine, Holly and Yew and at this time of year many of us will be ‘decking the halls’ with swathes of evergreens, even bringing home an entire tree in the hopes of blessing the house with and giving shelter to the ‘ever green’ spirit.  Holly and Ivy are often mentioned side by side in many traditional songs (such as ‘The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly’ :

Holly and his merry men, they dance and they sing,
Ivy and her maidens, they weep and they wring.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

Both songs suggest a struggle for supremacy between the Feminine and Masculine which Holly, the masculine, always wins at this time of year “as the manner is”.  In my part of the country, there was an old customary game around Christmas where teams of boys would attempt to obtain the ‘Ivy Girl’, and teams of girls would in turn attempt to get a hold of the boys’ ‘Holly Boy’ whoever succeeded was the victor.  The ‘Holly Boy’ and ‘Ivy Girl’ were often made around Shrovetide and at this time of year the teams attempted to capture the others and burn them…it’s all about dominance!!  Similarly an abundance of prickly Holly in a house signified male dominance, where the smoothed leafed Ivy signified female dominance… choose your decorations wisely folks!

Ivy in the Woods

Ivy in the Woods

When I observe Ivy in the wild I can understand why it was always deemed a more feminine natured plant, as mentioned above its leaves remind us of the triplicity of the feminine, the workings of Dame Fate even.  However there is something more ‘between’ about Ivy.  Ivy climbs up one thing, and therefore two things become a third.  Also Ivy may climb up and around several things, binding them together to make one.  This is probably the reason why Ivy became associated with marriage and fidelity, the Greeks presented newly married couples with a wreath of Ivy…its binds us together; it ‘ties the knot’ so to speak and with its evergreen nature, becomes a symbol of eternal love, a union that lasts always!

Mrs Greive in her ‘Modern Herbal’ suggests that the Ivy, as a symbol, was applied to premises which served good quality alcohol, and she refers to the saying “Good wine needs no bush’…perhaps that’s because good booze shouldn’t make you feel so ill that you need the privacy of a bush hours after imbibing!  Make of that what you will!!  Nevertheless there seems to be some connection between Ivy and alcohol…perhaps Ivy, growing much like a vine has some long forgotten virtue of negating the effects of bad booze, in fact one piece of ‘lore’ I read suggests that if wine and water are poured together in an Ivy wood bowl, the two would separate!

Those who study and use the controversial Ogham system (pronounced Oh-am) will be familiar with Ivy as ‘Gort’ the 11th ‘tree’ in the Ogham alphabet, associated with the letter G.   In this system of correspondences Ivy is associated with tenacity and perseverance.  Ivy climbs and clings on to the tree of life, it grows and scrambles, only flowering when it reaches the very top of its support, the pinnacle of its endeavours.    Personally Ivy teaches spiritual resilience, endurance and perseverance, showing us that whilst the going may be tough, and the climb long and arduous, it is worth it…in order to truly blossom and bear fruit, we must climb ever onwards, we must endure!   With its spiralling evergreen habit, Ivy reminds us that Spirit is eternal, with every round of the great spiral dance we learn more, we grow, we evolve ever closer to the spiritual heights of beauty and perfection.

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3 Responses to I is for Ivy

  1. 10 years ago i planted a couple strings of ivy along my steep stream bank, and now it covers around 10 feet by 30 feet! I love it for the evergreen during winter, and how it holds the soil on the stream bed when it floods. But i have to weed whack it away from getting under my aluminum siding. In autumn i take a rake and comb it like hair down the bank rather than up it. I always assumed ivy harmed trees, so thanks for letting me know it does not. I read a post of ivy’s flowers attracting bees and i said “what flowers?” and found out it has to mature many years to do so and see it does on the older ivy climbing my neighbor’s trees. I do use it for decorating my altar for Yule also.

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