Ivy can be found all over the world. It climbs up anything in its path by way of fibers that develop from the stem. These fibers become the root of the plant and allow the plant to crawl on the ground, up trees and up the sides of houses. The plant can do damage to trees, fences, walls and windows, yet it is often planted around buildings, used as ground cover or grown in containers.
Ivy's origin has been traced to Europe, Asia and northern Africa. It is widely cultivated all over the world, but especially in Britain. The genus name of the plant is Hedera.
Ivy leaves come in many different sizes, colors and shapes, with most having a rounded base and three- to five-lobed leaves. The leaves grow alternately along the stem and are shiny and feel like leather. Some ivy plants lose their leaves in winter, but many are evergreen. Flowers are rare but will appear when the plant grows above the item supporting it. Clusters of yellow to green tiny flowers appear in autumn and turn into purple to black seeds that are enjoyed by birds.
Ivy is most often associated with the Roman character of Bacchus, who was always in the vineyard drinking wine. It is also associated with the Greek god of intoxication, Dionysus. Ancient people believed that if they boiled a handful of ivy leaves in the wine before drinking it, they would not become drunk. A wreath of ivy was used at weddings and placed on the heads of the bride and groom to symbolize fidelity. Ivy was carried by women for good luck or to give them the ability to conceive. There was a tradition of placing ivy in a bowl of water on New Year's Eve. It stayed there until Twelfth Night, and if it still looked fresh, it was going to be a successful year.
Romans crowned poets with a wreath of ivy to show their high standing in society. Taverns in England often placed signs with ivy on them over the doors of the establishment. It told everyone that fine wine was served there, and some taverns still place this Bacchus-inspired symbol over their doors. English ivy was introduced in America by European immigrants. Ivy was used as the counterpoint to holly Christmas traditions and was, for a short time, banned in America and England due to puritanical rule. It is used today as ground cover or to hide inconsistencies in old buildings.
Growing and Maintaining Ivy
It is not difficult to grow ivy. It grows in shade and sun but prefers about four hours of sunlight per day. It does not even have to grow in soil and will take nutrients from trees and brick or stone walls. It grows easily from cuttings placed in a glass of water or in soil, where it will establish roots and start growing. Pinching back leaves will make it bushier. When used as a ground cover, it must be well maintained or it will take over the entire yard. Use pruning shears to cut ivy back and be sure to put it in a garbage bag, or it will grow where it is thrown.