Growing well almost anywhere, ivies are remarkable for their shade tolerance – and for the fact that they also grow well in full sun. They make excellent groundcover, quickly covering difficult areas such as dry shade, stabilising the soil and providing year-round greenery. Another useful attribute is that the climbing forms are self-clinging, which means that it’s not necessary to attach any kind of fixing if you want to grow them up walls or fences.
Ivies are generally unfussy as to their soil requirements, as long as the site isn’t waterlogged. Common ivy (Hedera helix) grows best in alkaline soils: in acidic conditions try Persian ivy (Hedera colchica) or Algerian ivy (H. algeriensis). Commonly-available sorts are all hardy, although H. algeriensis may suffer in severe winters in particularly cold areas of the UK.
A notable feature of ivies is that they have two distinct phases of growth. In their juvenile stage plants send out creeping stems that seek vertical surfaces, growing rapidly upwards and holding on with adventitious roots when they do. 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 and the following spring or early summer.
Regular pruning will maintain ivies in a self-clinging, non-flowering juvenile state. For maximum wildlife value, however, it is best to allow adult growth to develop. Some cultivars are available suspended in particular states – for example ‘Arborescens’ and ‘Ice Cream’ are both adult-only plants, which means they are bushy, non-climbing and flower every year.
Perhaps the most versatile garden plants of all, ivies can adapt to almost any situation, from climbers to groundcover, houseplants to topiary.
Vigorous climbing cultivars of Hedera helix are especially useful for hiding eyesores, providing an evergreen backdrop to other planting and creating wildlife habitats. Coloured-leaf and variegated cultivars can lighten up dark shady areas; H. colchica, H. hibernica Hibernica Group and large-leaved forms of H. helix are particularly useful as groundcover in shade. Hedera hibernica is salt tolerant and grows particularly well by the sea.
Miniature and Pittsburgh cultivars of ivy adapt well to life in pots, even making excellent houseplants and topiary. (Pittsburgh ivies have been selected to be more compact and less vigorous). They are often available as bedding plants during the winter months, which are well worth keeping once spring comes.
Pruning is straightforward – trim back any excess growth in mid spring. This is particularly recommended for Hedera colchica as it produces fewer self-anchoring roots and may become top heavy and prone to wind damage. Smaller-leaved cultivars can be trained over wire frames as topiary.
Occasionally cultivars with coloured, variegated or unusually-shaped leaves will revert to plain green – simply remove these shoots as soon as you see them. Overgrown plants can be hard pruned in early spring: they regenerate readily from old wood.
Ivies suffer from few pests and diseases. Viburnum scale may occasionally colonise ivy plants – causing unsightly sooty mould – although problems are not normally severe on healthy specimens. Aphids may attack young growth, particularly on indoor plants. Vine weevil is sometimes a problem for pot-grown plants. Leaf spots (caused by bacterial or fungal infections) are unsightly but have little effect on plants’ vigour. Control by removing infected material and avoid wetting foliage when watering.
Ivies are easy to propagate from semi-ripe cuttings of climbing shoots. Simply place sections of stem with at least two leaves into open, well-drained potting medium and cover with a plastic bag. Keep in a bright place that’s out of direct sunlight and remove the bag once new growth is visible.
Wildlife value and ecosystem services
Ivies have enormous value to wildlife, providing all-important year-round shelter for huge numbers of creatures including birds, small mammals and invertebrates. If allowed to reach their adult phase and flower, they provide an invaluable late source of nectar and pollen for bees, hoverflies and many other insects. Ivy berries are much appreciated by birds in midwinter when other food sources are scarce.
More than 140 species of insect and 17 species of bird feed on ivy in Britain, and countless others appreciate its evergreen shelter.
People can benefit from ivies too: their ‘ecosystem services’ are becoming increasingly recognised. When grown on walls, they provide thermal insulation, which means houses stay warmer in winter and cooler in summer, and ivies improve air quality by trapping particulates.
Hedera algeriensis 'Gloire de Marengo' (v) - vigorous climber with large, triangular or ovate dark green and grey-green leaves margined with creamy-white
Hedera algeriensis 'Ravensholst' - vigorous climber with triangular-ovate, glossy dark green leaves to 20cm in length, sometimes tinged purple in winter
Hedera colchica 'Dentata' - very vigorous climber with drooping ovate rich green leaves to 25cm in length, sometimes slightly toothed
Hedera colchica 'Sulphur Heart' (v) - vigorous climber with broadly ovate leaves to 20cm in length, dark green with a central splash of yellow and yellow-green
Hedera helix 'Arborescens' - non-climbing form; bushy, produces abundant flowers and fruit
Hedera helix 'Buttercup' - climber with broad, bluntly lobed, bright yellow leaves (pale or greenish in shade)
Hedera helix 'Ceridwen' (v) - compact with 3-lobed leaves in green and yellow; makes a good houseplant
Hedera helix 'Congesta' - non-climbing dwarf shrub with stiffly erect shoots crowded with small, slightly lobed leaves arranged in two ranks; non-flowering
Hedera helix 'Maple Leaf' - climbing shrub with dark green leaves cut deeply into 5 narrow, toothed lobes, the central lobe the longest
Hedera helix 'Midas Touch' (v) - small climber with reddish stems, with triangular to heart-shaped leaves boldly splashed with golden-yellow on a bright green background; makes a good houseplant
Hedera helix 'Parsley Crested' - climber with broad, entire or slightly lobed leaves with crisped margins; no flowers
Hedera hibernica 'Spetchley' - very small leaves deeply divided into three narrow lobes; no flowers
Hedera pastuchovii 'Ann Ala' - elegant climber with dark green, undivided, oblong leaves 5-9cm long, heart-shaped at the base, with paler veins
Hedera - The complete guide
For unparalleled information on ivies, their species, cultivars and cultivation, see the second in our series of horticultural monographs, Hedera - The complete guide - see a preview below:
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