English ivy (Hedera helix) is native to England, Ireland, the Mediterranean and western Europe. It is now widespread in the eastern and southern United States, too, having probably traveled to America with immigrants from Europe in colonial times. It is a member of the Araliaceae or ginseng family.
From ancient times, Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, wore a crown of English ivy. Bacchus was the central deity in Bacchanalia festivals that began in Rome around 200 B.C.E. These revelries usually took place on March 16. Roman authorities eventually banned them because of the ensuing debauchery. Ironically, the reason why Bacchus wore the crown of ivy was to prevent intoxication.
The Carol's History
In keeping with the Bacchus tradition, British taverns often posted signs incorporating English ivy to symbolize anti-intoxication. English ivy and holly also became traditional Christmas decorations in homes and churches, and immortalized in the classic Christmas carol, “The Holly and The Ivy.” The author and the date of this version of the carol remain unconfirmed, though there is speculation it originated in the 18th century. The original carol may go back to pagan times, hundreds of years ago.
English ivy threatens woodlands, forests, fields and coastal areas, covering all before it with thick leaves that block the sun from nurturing seedlings. This vine can also kill trees if it is allowed to grow unchecked into the branches. The weight of the vine can weaken a tree. In 1939, Queen Elizabeth of Britain established “ivy squads” to remove English ivy vines from trees and walls that might otherwise be destroyed. Horticulturists advise destroying these vines completely by cutting them off trees or lifting them off the ground root and branch. They should be disposed of as trash because of the ease with which remnant fragments can grow.
However, there are other views in support of English ivy as a protective covering for the woodland floor in times of frost, and as a source of food for ground foraging birds and mammals, including starlings and elk. Reports of life in the British Channel Islands during World War II (1940 to 1945) include mention of boiled English ivy berries used to soothe swellings and sores, and to counter dandruff and skin problems.
The Film Version
English ivy also has a place in the arts. In 1952, a black-and-white film called “The Holly and the Ivy” portrayed the heartwarming story of an English minister and his family reunited after World War II and their reminiscences. The film starred Ralph Richardson as Reverend Martin Gregory and Celia Johnson as Jenny Gregory. The American release of the film was in 1954.
Today in America, English ivy is classified as an invasive species, but is popular as an ornamental indoor plant. One of its advantages is the ability to remove benzene from the air.