Hedera helix (common ivy)
About this speciesCommon ivy is a popular ornamental, valued for its ability to thrive in shady places, provide excellent groundcover and cover unsightly walls, sheds and tree stumps. Many cultivars are available, including variegated forms that can be used to brighten shady depths of winter gardens.
Long collected for winter decorations, common ivy is associated with Christmas and frequently features in festive designs. It is also an important source of food and shelter for wildlife during winter.
Ivy is not a parasite, does not normally damage sound buildings or walls, and is rarely a threat to healthy trees. Regular trimming can prevent ivy becoming too heavy, a problem that can be exacerbated by the additional weight of rain and snow.
Geography & Distribution
Common ivy is an invasive species in Australia, New Zealand and western USA.
Juvenile leaves of Hedera helix
Juvenile leaves: Dark green, leathery, 3–5-lobed, the two basal lobes reduced in size to give the typical ivy-leaf shape. Dotted with white, star-shaped hairs.
Adult leaves: Unlobed, markedly narrower on shoots exposed to light.
Flowers: Borne in spherical clusters, each held on a stalk (peduncle), with a proteinaceous scent. From September to November.
Fruits: Yellow-orange to black berries, up to 9 mm in diameter, each containing five seeds.
Hedera helix f. poetarum is a form with dull orange fruits, found in the Mediterranean and known as poet’s ivy or Italian ivy.
Common ivy and wildlife
Hedera helix flowers open late in the year (September to November) and are pollinated by insects such as wasps and moths. They are an important source of nectar and pollen for bees when other sources such as heather are not available.
Hedera helix 'Pennsylvanica'
Hedera helix is frequently used in cut flower arrangements, particularly in winter displays. The custom of decorating homes with ivy and evergreens dates back to pre-Christian times when they were associated with the power of the eternal and represented continuation of life through the winter.
Early herbalists, having seen common ivy smothering grape vines, held the belief that ivy berries could counteract the unwanted side-effects of alcohol consumption. Hedera helix has in the past been used in the treatment of verrucas, warts and corns.
Ivy wood has been used as a substitute for boxwood (Buxus sempervirens). The glossy, cream, ivory-like heartwood is sometimes used in flower arrangements.
Young twigs were formerly a source of dyes, and it is said that a red dye can be obtained from the berries when boiled with alum.
Ivy is browsed by cattle and sometimes used as an emergency winter fodder.
Common ivy as a symbol
The Roman custom of hanging a branch with leaves (often ivy because it was readily available, and the leaves, being evergreen, lasted a long time) on a pole to indicate that the premises sold wine or ale spread throughout Europe in the Middle Ages and became known as an alepole or alestake.
Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage
Five collections of Hedera helix seeds are held in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank based at Wakehurst in West Sussex.
See Kew’s Seed Information Database for further information on Hedera helix seeds.