“Oh, a dainty plant is the ivy green…”

Mr H in festive mood [courtesy of my brother Nicholas]

Writing a post for Christmas is never easy… unless there is an obvious  monstrosity to write about as there was in 2017 [check it out if you have managed to blank it from your mind!]  It would be easier  if I chose to be trite and write about the same things as everybody else desperately trying to be seasonal. But I don’t like being banal so  nothing about Christmas trees, and as far as plants go I’ve already written about mistletoe, poinsettias, the Glastonbury Thorn, and   amaryllis.  I’ve also written about  James Shirley Hibberd, the great Victorian garden writer and populariser of suburban gardening who loved artificial flowers at Christmas. 

Then I remembered that Hibberd also published  a whole book about a well-known , although now rather less popular, Christmas stalwart, and since I’ve already got pictures of him dressed up in the spirit of the season , today’s  post  will, in his words, “present to public notice a few particulars of the history, habits, and uses of that well-known plant, the Ivy”.

All the images come from Hibberd’s The Ivy unless otherwise stated

Ivy is one of those plants one might think is ubiquitous globally, but it’s only indigenous to Europe, parts of North Africa and western Asia.

It’s an unusual plant in having  two stages of growth.  According to the Royal Horticultural Society,   in its juvenile stage “plants send out long stems that seek vertical surfaces, growing rapidly upwards and holding on with adventitious roots (i.e. roots that grow from the stems instead of below soil). Once plants are well established (normally after around 10 years), growth switches to the adult phase. The leaves change shape, becoming un-lobed, growth becomes shrubby and covered with flowers in autumn and berries that ripen over winter”.

A member of the Aralia family, ivy creeps and, given half a chance,  climbs over anything and everything in its path, quickly forming dense coverings on the ground, on trees or any other supports it can find.  As a result, perhaps unsurprisingly, ivy has a mixed reputation. Is it an ornamental or a weed? Useful or an invasive nuisance?

At this time of the year we’ll probably have to give it the benefit of the doubt but there was absolutely no doubt in Hibberd’s mind.  Indeed he seems to have been pretty obsessed and tells his readers that  “for some fifteen or more years past, [he] has given especial attention to this subject, and has by various means, such as ivy-hunting in the woods, purchase from gardens, and the practice of cross-breeding, obtained upwards of two hundred varieties of the plant, many of them the most diverse characteristics.”  That’s a bit surprising  or scary depending on what you think about ivy, and even more so when one discovers  that in 1869 Hibberd sold “5o of the most distinct garden varieties” to Charles Turner of the Royal Nurseries at Slough with a view to getting them  into commercial production.




How on earth he did he find over 200 varieties?   Some were purchased from nurseries although  often  the same variety was sold under different names and this meant he had to undertake “a careful revision of the names, and a close comparison of all known garden ivies … in order to eliminate …every named variety that lacked distinctness of character.” You can tell he relished the challenge as it “proved a laborious though most agreeable task.”  His work also led to a serious botanical review of the taxonomy of Hedera, the Latin name for the ivy group of plants.

Others in his collection were, in echoes of the Victorian mania for collecting ferns,   “obtained direct from woods and ruins, where nature had produced and planted them in her own way ; and others, again, have been raised in the author’s garden, and represent the capabilities of the ivy for variation as the result of crossing.”  

His book concludes with lengthy but well-illustrated descriptive list of ivies and recommendations as to where to use them in the garden and house.

How does Hibberd attempt to “sell” ivy to the Victorian gardening public? He starts of with a lengthy review of its historical and cultural associations, in ancient Egypt and the classical world and how it became associated with Dionysus/Bacchus and warding off drunkenness.  He takes delight in telling us, that since “the leaves have a nauseous taste and stimulate the salivary glands” an infusion will act as a purgative rather than a hangover cure.  Neverthless  because the god himself, and his attendants were often depicted wearing wreaths of ivy leaves,  ivy also somehow became associated with pubs and taverns where an ivy bush or an ivy-wrapped pole outside was an early form of advertising.

This and its use in mid-winter festivals led to ivy being frowned on by the early Christian church who then, as with so many other pagan customs, took it over and adapted it to serve their own purposes. Buying “greens,  including ivy, to deck the church  became a regular expense for churchwardens.  The late Elizabethan chronicler John Stow tells us that, “against the feast of Christmas every man’s house, as also the parish churches, were decked with holme, ivy, and bayes, and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be given. The conduits and standards in the streets were likewise garnished.” 

 Ivy also became a Christian symbol of the eternal life  by  the mediaeval period, an association that  continued with  its later use in mourning and funerary monuments  which ties in nicely with ruin and decay.  Hibberd includes lots of engravings of ivy-covered ruins while  the title of this post is taken from  verses  penned by Dickens that Hibberd quotes in his introduction.

The poem which first appeared in Pickwick Papers describes how ivy thrives in places that have been abandoned and how it twines itself around “crumbled” and decaying walls, and makes meals from the “dust that years have made.” It ends with the thought that  after the demise of humanity  ivy will remain and “fatten upon the past: the the stateliest building man can raise is the Ivy’s food at last”.   

Nor was Dickens the only writer cited by Hibberd who was clearly well-read: Euripides, Ovid and Vergil, Shakespeare, Dryden, Wordsworth, Byron,  Keats, and even his contemporary the romantic poet Felicia Hemans [better known for  “The boy stood on the burning deck” and “The stately homes of England”]  were invoked,  with my favourite  coming from  Tennyson’s Idylls of the King describing  how “monstrous ivy stems claspt the grey walls with hairy-fibred arms.”

Ivy and ruins, romantic or otherwise, have gone hand in hand seemingly for ever. This is especially noticeable in paintings of the romantic and picturesque periods where it seems to represent the transitory nature of human endeavours in the face of Nature. 

Of course,  ivy is not the only plant that thrives in ruinous buildings. I have poppies, campanula pyramidalis, wallflowers , buddleia, sedums, all sorts of grasses, and plenty of other wild plants growing on historic – or at least tumbledown – walls in my own garden.  But ivy is noticed more than the others because of its ability to climb using aerial roots, spread widely and bush out in the process..

There is a downside to this almost symbiotic relationship with ruins, with ivy often considered  a  danger to buildings.  Hibberd himself wrote in an article about the effect of ivy on church walls for Floral World in 1858, which concluded that “it is a protector, not a destroyer, and, for many other reasons besides its beauty, is worthy of the universal admiration accorded it.”

His findings were  not universally shared. In the 19th and earlier 20thc there was a long battle royal  about ivy [and other vegetation] between archaeologists and architectural purists on the one hand and those of a more aesthetic and romantic disposition on the other. I’d guess to Hibberd’s dismay the purists won.

After the Ancient Monuments Act of 1913 the Office of Works ordered the removal of ivy and other plants from walls, so that surviving structures were uncovered and the site’s layout made clearer.  Others were horrified by the loss of what they saw as the opportunity for  romantic re-imagining of historic sites.  James Lees-Milne of the National Trust  talked of ‘the wanton sacrifice of aesthetic considerations to mere archaeological pedantry’ and he persuaded the Trust to set themselves up as champions of the more popular  romantic approach.  Nonetheless the new stark aesthetic dominated state run properties for most of the 20thc.  You could tell the difference almost immediately between a National Trust property and one in the care of the ministry by how spick and span and ivy-free it was.

In fact, as usual, there is a balance to be struck. Conservation does not need to mean starkness and research by English Heritage [carried on now by Historic England] shows that “a covering of ivy may not necessarily be a bad thing as it can protect surfaces from weathering processes” and “the frequency, severity and duration of frost events that cause damage to vulnerable masonry materials.”  Furthermore Ivy is  “very effective at reducing extremes of temperature and relative humidity”.  In urban areas especially  the plant also acts “an effective trap of fine airborne particulates. It reduces the amount of pollution reaching the surface of walls that contributes to soiling and chemical degradation.” Its main downside usually comes  only when it gets its roots into a structure as this can cause serious damage.   Hibberd would, I’m sure, be delighted with these findings. 

If you want to know more about the effects of ivy on buildings  check out the report or these earlier  posts:Romance and Reason 1 ;     Romance and Reason 2,  and Romance and Reason 3.

However the same conclusions do not hold true for trees.  Hibberd aked: “Does it injure them ? Without a doubt it does. The clasping stems check the circulation of the sap in the rind of the tree ; the ample leafage, into which the climber develops as it ascends, robs its supporter of light and air, and at last a destructive warfare ensues, in which the “usurping ivy ” invariably becomes the conqueror, and brings its stalwart friend with dishonour to the ground.”

from the RHS website

But of course he can also see the romantic or picturesque side of this process. “Shall we say ‘dishonour’ of a mighty oak or elm that has succumbed at a moment when it has acquired a magnificent vesture of evergreen herbage of the richest colour, in which the honey-bees sing aloud on bright October days, and the painter passing by is arrested by the majesty of its outlines and the depth of its shadows, and must needs make a sketch of the picturesque object ere he can pursue his way ?” In the end he concludes that “the word is appropriate” for there  “be no honour in yielding to an embrace … of the beautiful destroyer.”

 The Woodland Trust disagrees completely: “Clingy, luscious, misunderstood. Ivy has long been accused of strangling trees, but it doesn’t harm the tree at all, and even supports at least 50 species of wildlife… and  its presence doesn’t indicate that a tree is unhealthy, and it doesn’t create a tree-safety issue.”

The RHS largely goes along with that view: “On most trees that are in sound health and are not being grown for their attractive bark, ivy can be allowed to grow on the trunk without concern for the tree’s health or vigour.”

Hibberd was ahead of this in noticing the importance of ivy for wildlife. Flowering as it does in late autumn and winter it feeds and shelters  “so many useful and entertaining creatures [which] contribute in no small degree towards the happiness of mankind.” However, on a more general point,  he thought  ” the garden uses of the ivy are but little understood.” Nowadays the Royal Horticultural Society is much more positive suggesting that ivies are “perhaps the most versatile garden plants of all, [and]  can adapt to almost any situation, growing well as climbers, groundcover, houseplants or as topiary.”

Three of those uses were discussed by Hibberd. Firstly and fairly obviously “all the climbing sorts are suited for the covering of walls, trellises, and arbours ; and it is an especial recommendation of them that they grow more luxuriantly, and acquire finer colours, on a damp wall facing north than in any other situation or aspect.”

Next “the partiality of the plant for a moist atmosphere and a subdued light renders it peculiarly well adapted for glass cases, whether of an ornamental kind, adapted to adorn an entrance-hall, or for a mere window screen to plant out an unpleasant prospect in a town dwelling.” Hibberd cites examples  and suggests using them instead of ferns in glass cases, but also as “a green and fresh screen across a room, being planted in boxes, [with] its sprays trained over rustic framework.”

Outside “the vigorous habited green-leaved kinds make fine standards for the lawn or terrace garden”, but as they also “thrive in smoky localities, they might be largely employed to dress town gardens, whether in the form of bold marginal lines, as on Islington Green and the (Victoria) Thames Embankment in London, or as a carpeting for open spaces instead of grass, or to cover knolls, or to be trained over posts of wood or stone as independent shrubs.”

Meanwhile “the fruiting or arborescent ivies are admirably adapted for the formation of compact bushes in the shrubbery, and they may be grown in pots to plunge in flower-beds during winter, or to decorate the conservatory.”    This can be taken one stage further and they could be “useful at fetes, and to decorate halls and entrances, and may be adapted to fit into recesses and form dividing screens between apartments, by growing them in troughs fitted with wire work. The troughs should never be larger than can be carried by two strong men.”


One thing did surprise me, there is no mention of the RHS’s fourth suggested use for ivy: topiary. The nearest we get is his suggestion for ivy umbrellas.

 Now we know from other Victorian garden books that fantastic shapes were often created using ivy so I checked other books by Hibberd and found almost no mention there either.


The reason was revealed in some quotes from him in the 1904 Book of Topiary by Charles Curtis and W.Gibson.  including “I confess that I should never care to adorn my garden with topiary or with carpet bedding; but I hope always… that I may not appear to despise another man’s pleasures, or vainly desire to set up a standard of my own in opposition to the delightful variety that is ensured by the free exercise of individual taste and fancy.” 

Finally he says one of ivy’s great advantages is that it will thrive in that most difficult of situations, dry shade under trees. There “it will carry a cheerful face, and give its glossy sober leafage in exchange for blank earth suggestive of noisome barrenness” before going on to add,  “it must be repeated that it is one of the best of graveyard plants, and most appropriate for a clothing of the mounds which mark the resting-places of the dead.” So ivy is linked to both death and ruins but let’s finish not by dwelling on such sombre connections and look at its seasonal ones instead. These too are discussed by Hibberd.  Here ivy is traditionally linked with holly, particularly in carols.




In the most famous of these carols, The Holly and the Ivy, which can only be traced back to  1710, the Holly’s crown references pagan, possibly Druidic, rituals about King Holly while poor old Ivy is unmentioned other than in the opening line.  But there are several other surviving mediaeval carols about the two plants and in them Holly is usually also given a masculine character and Ivy a female one, with  the words reflecting a struggle between the two for mastery.   In one the lyrics tell us that “Holly standeth in the hall fair to behold/ Ivy stands without the door; she is full sore a’cold”. It goes on:

 “Holly and his merry men, they dancen and they sing/ Ivy and her maidens, they weepen and they wring.” As Jan Dalley noted in the Financial Times in 2015 “In this battle of the sexes, the Holly King definitely has the upper hand. These songs are playful, flirtatious and teasing, but some versions carry a powerful message in a chorus that runs: “Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.” Meaning, we suppose, that song and dance and having fun at times of celebration were all very well, but in the domestic gender wars there was no question about the outcome”.

I wonder what Mrs Hibberd [who was called Sarah rather than Ivy] thought of that!  

Merry Christmas!




About The Gardens Trust

Email - education@thegardenstrust.org Website - www.thegardenstrust.org
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