Incredible….Indispensible….Important Ivy!

 

It is that time of year again when our wonderful native Ivy is in blossom.

Not the sort of display of blossom that is going to turn heads or win a Gold at The Chelsea Flower Show.

Well, unless the judging panel was made up of a team of Solitary Bees, Bumblebees, Honeybees, Butterflies, Moths, Bats, Birds and much more!

Because Ivy is one of those rare plants that caters for a huge range of species. It is without doubt, one of our most important native plants, in relation to the amount of biodiversity it supports.

Unfortunately, like a lot of the plants that are vital for biodiversity, such as Nettle, Bramble, Willow and even Thistle, Ivy has a bad reputation which is completely unwarranted.

To dispel a few of the myths about Ivy:

  • Ivy does not strangle trees.
  • Ivy is not parasitic.
  • Ivy will not skim your ATM card and then clean out your bank account….

Okay made that last one up, but just in case anyone had their suspicions!

This wonderful native climbing shrub derives all its nutrients through photosynthesis, and through its intricate root system anchored in the soil.

Yes, it can swamp a “Mid Story” tree such as Hawthorn or Blackthorn.

Though, one could very convincingly argue that in doing so the resultant dense dome thicket of Ivy blanketing such a small tree, is an even better habitat for a larger range of creatures, than the original tree it was covering.

Because it retains its foliage in winter, Ivy can “catch” the wind in stormy weather, resulting in an already dying or weakened tree falling.

Though in the natural course of events, in a functioning healthy ecosystem, that is often how older decaying trees meet their demise.

 

Ivy in flower cloaking a tree

 

That fallen tree then goes on to become an incredibly important habitat – a home for a variety of creatures that specifically require a deadwood habitat to complete their lifecycle.

Another benefit of Ivy is that it has been found to regulate temperature when cladding walls of buildings.

A study commissioned by Oxford University on behalf of Historic England in 2017 provides reassurance. ‘Ivy cannot bore into buildings, and damage where it grows into existing defects, can be prevented by careful pruning.’ In fact, the study demonstrated that ivy has some key benefits to buildings. ‘It buffers extremes of temperature and humidity, as well as reducing severity of frosts. Ivy foliage was also shown to be an effective trap of fine airborne particulates and reduces the amount of pollution reaching the walls.’

Suffolk Wildlife Trust

Yet more reason to cherish Ivy, is that it is the larval food plant for one of our beautiful native butterflies.

Our gorgeous Holly Blue butterfly lays its first brood on, as its name would suggest, our native Holly. But it relies on Ivy to lay its second batch of eggs on, later in the summer.

Birds will roost and utilise its dense thicket of growth to nest in. This same dense thicket Ivy creates, is an effective sheltering site during a heavy downpour for all manner of creatures. It is ideal to shield against the rain, and wind with its large overlapping making it the perfect umbrella like canopy!

 

Holly Blue Butterfly on a Daisy at Wildacres

 

Have a look at this time of year at a wall, fence or tree cloaked in Ivy on a sunny day, and it will be alive with a variety of insects.  

From Hoverflies to Bumblebees, Solitary Bees to Wasps, Butterflies to Honeybees. Also include in that list the newly arrived addition to our population of native wild bee species, the Ivy Mining bee Collettes hedera. This solitary bee has only recently been discovered on the east coast in Wexford first, and now Wicklow and it is believed to have expanded its range flying across to colonize from neighbouring Wales. As the name suggests this wonderful new addition to our native fauna has evolved to focus its lifecycle, in tune with the late flowering of our wonderful Ivy.  

 

Our newly colonized (2021) Ivy Mining Bee on Ivy Flower.

 

After dark, the heavily scented Ivy flowers attract the nighttime pollinator shift, in the form of an array of moths to feast on its bounty nectar. 

Why do so many pollinators flock to it when in flower?  

Because it is one of those rare plants, like Willow and Dandelions, that produces both vast amounts of pollen and nectar.  

Also, because the nectaries are not deep in Ivy flowers, unlike for example they are in Foxgloves with their long tubular flower structure. The nectar in Ivy flowers is easily accessible by all insects, it is a magnet for these creatures.  

All this at a time when just about every other plant has finished flowering, and just before the cold weather arrives and insects leave for warmer climes or go into a state of hibernation or torpor.

  

Ivy flower in bud

 

So, Ivy is a vital plant to supply that essential energy rich nectar and pollen at a crucial time. 

Those small nectar and pollen rich flowers when pollinated, then go on to produce, at first an olive-green coloured berry, later ripening to a blackish purple, calorie loaded food source. So important for a vast array of birdlife especially. 

After the autumn bounty of all the red berries such as Holly, Rowan and Hawthorn have been devoured by hungry birds. They will rely on the later ripening Ivy berries to tide them over, through what is often called the “Hungry Gap”. This is the period of the cold and lean months of January and February, when food is scarce and before the start of spring, which in turn will bring a fresh supply of food in many forms.  

Even Foxes, Badgers and Pine Martens have been found to eat them to avail of their high calorific content.  

 

Ripe calorie-rich Ivy Berries

 

In Ireland we have two native species of Ivy.  

Hedera hibernica and Hedera helix 

Hedera hibernica is distinguished from Hedera helix by having brown hairs, as opposed to the white, on the growing tips of the later. 

As outlined above our native Ivy really is a Super Hero of a plant. 

So, learn to love your Ivy and please spread the word. The more of it we can allow to thrive the better it will be for our threatened biodiversity.  

  

 

Ivy – a mass of this wondeful plant – in flower

 

Yours in nature!

Brian and Gilly

 

Gilly and Brian at Wildacres with Biodiversity Initiative and All Ireland Sustainable Business of the Year Awards

Gilly and Brian at Wildacres with Biodiversity Initiative and All Ireland Sustainable Business of the Year Awards