The evergreen nature of Ivy meant that it was used to decorate homes in winter even before Christianity. Many Pagan customs were absorbed by the Christian Church. Ivy was banished from the Church for a time because of its shadier characteristics: its tendency to grow in shade away from the light. It earned a bad reputation for secret desires, debauchery and hidden desires. Over time its clinging nature gained positive associations with faithfulness, friendship and love.
Symbol of Femininity
Ivy is one of the key protagonists in the famous Christmas carol, The Holly and Ivy. Ivy was regarded as a feminine plant in counterbalance to the masculinity of Holly. The lyrics focus more on Holly than Ivy in a way somewhat reminiscent of the historic role of women.
Late Nectar Source
Ivy flowers are easily overlooked. They have a fascinatingly different structure when you look closely. You usually find them in autumn. This year, I first found Ivy flowering in late August. I might have easily missed it but for a sudden flurry of pollinating flies and hoverflies. Ivy provides an excellent late source of nectar when summer flower sources are depleted.
Ivy is often eyed with suspicion for harming trees. It does not harm to its supporting trees. It is not a parasite. It provides a lot of support in turn to wildlife – no fewer than 50 species according to the Woodland Trust.
Ivy leaves show marked variability. They vary as they age. These evergreen leaves handle some of the toughest winter conditions. I was recently interested to note how Ivy leaves were tinged red after several days of frost (see below). A week later, many leaves had turned brown, but the plant fought back vigorously with fresh, new leaves. No wonder it symbolises eternal life.
References and Further Reading
- Dines, Trevor (2015): Why we weave magical ivy garlands. BBC Earth. 23 December 2015
- RHS (2020): Hedera (ivy). RHS Gardening.
- Rootwell (2015): Ivy – The Christmas Magic and History Behind It. 14 December 2015
- Woodland Trust (?): Ivy (Hedera helix).
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