Wildlife with an amateur observer
HOW many of us brought in greenery from our gardens to make festive arrangements? I had agapanthus and teasel heads, some straight twigs and palm fronds, and the wonderful heads and leaves of the ivy to tie it all together.
The humble ivy was traditionally brought into the house in times past to ‘green’ the Christmas, in addition to holly. I still use it in preference to berry holly because, at this time of the year, the poor birds need these precious red berries far more than I do.
As well as making a pretty decoration, ivy has many other uses and, while much maligned nowadays, it was traditionally regarded as a plant of value by our ancestors given protection as such.
Ivy had many uses in Ireland in times past and its value as a winter fodder granted it the title of one of ‘the bushes of the wood’ in early Irish Laws. Under these laws, the unlawful clearing of a neighbour’s strand of ivy led to a hefty fine of one dairt, (a year-old heifer).
Ivy was used in folk medicine to clear warts and was also used as an ointment for burns and scalds. It was valued as a cure for coughs and bronchitis and is still used by herbalists in tincture form for the treatment of chest ailments. Ivy was the plant associated with Baccus, the Roman god of wine and was often positioned outside establishments that sold wine and spirits. It was also used during ceremonies in ancient Greece and Rome to decorate weapons and as a wreath to adorn the head.
Good for wildlife
Ivy is not well-regarded generally nowadays as it can get out of control in a garden. However, it has its benefits to wildlife as one of the few plants that offer necessary shelter in winter.
Because ivy keeps its leaves throughout the year it saves small birds, who lose heat easily, from hypothermia during the long cold winter. In spring time, it also gives cover for birds nesting in trees that have not yet come into leaf.
Without this ivy camouflage, the nests would be easily found and attacked by predators. And finally, ivy provides a secure daytime snooze spot for bats in summer time and a refuge for butterflies.
As well as providing shelter, ivy’s eccentric fruit and flowering seasons offer other benefits to wildlife. Ivy does the reverse of most other plants by flowering in the autumn and bearing fruit in the spring. By doing this, it has little pollination competition from other plants and it offers a much-needed lifeline to wildlife in times when there is very little other fruit or flowering activity.
Ivy starts to flower in September and insects love it; the plant hums and buzzes with life.
Bee keepers usually stop collecting honey around this time as ivy-honey is quite bitter and crystalline so they prefer to leave this for the bees to overwinter on. This late bonanza of nectar also helps hibernating insects, offering bumble bees a store to fuel the long winter sleep.
Ivy fruits early in the year, its black bitter berries offering a feast in an otherwise lean time.
These ripened berries are loved by birds but they taste acrid to us humans. Ivy got its name from the old Germanic word ‘ifig’, meaning bitter, because of this sour taste.
Old buildings and trees
Many people believe that ivy damages trees and, indeed, a tree with its canopy smothered in ivy is much more susceptible to being blown down in winter storms. It’s considered dangerous particularly when it reaches the crown of the tree, or starts to grow along its lateral branches.
However, it can be managed, and some of its stems can be cut from time to time when it looks like it might overpower its host.
When ivy is well established on an old building, it can actually keep the structure together so it’s really quite a dangerous thing to remove it.
But, as is the case with trees, in the early stages of growth, it can be controlled by cutting the base stems.
Wishing you all a happy New Year full of outdoor joy!