Ivy is in a league of its own.
However, this plant is never really alone. Since it is a parasite, it needs a partner to survive. English ivy, which adorns buildings and trees, is called Hedera helix by botanists. Its scientific name means twist and turn, which aptly describes its ascent up walls and trees.
This time of year, it also joins with holly in a familiar yuletide carol (The Holly and the Ivy by Cecil Sharp) and as a potent symbol of the season. But ivy wasn’t always on the church’s approved list. The Christian church at one time banned it due to its pagan associations.
Its potency is legendary and its fame historic. You might say that ivy lore is deeply entwined in Western culture. Druids believed that it was a symbol of strength and determination. Ivy was also thought to protect against evil and even drunkenness. For sobriety, no matter how many drinks you have consumed, hold tight to the leaves of ivy. This purportedly works due to this plant’s association with Bacchus, the god of spirits, who will keep an eye on you.
If this worked and you aren’t hung over on New Year’s Eve, ivy can divine your future. Put a leaf on top of a bowl of water: if it is fresh by the 12th night, then it will be a good year.
Even in death, one is not safe from the power of ivy. If it doesn’t grow on a grave, the unlucky owner of said stone has an unhappy soul in the other world. Alternately, if it thrived on a young girl’s grave, it meant that she died of unrequited love.
This prophecy for love reached to the living too. “Ivy, Ivy I love you, in my bosom I put you. The first young man who speaks to me, my future husband he shall be.” This trick works for men too. They are advised to gather 10 leaves of ivy on Halloween and put one under their pillow to encourage a dream of their future bride (hopefully not a witch).
Fortune telling aside, the good (or not so good) doctor prescribed ivy for “bad spleens, baldness, bloody flux, bunions, catarrh, colds, corns, dropsy, gallstones, intoxication, jaundice, plague, poisoning, rheumatism, skin infections, sore eyes, swollen glands, ulcers, worms, wounds.” This physician may have been in cahoots with the undertaker, since ivy plants are now known to be poisonous due to a toxic component, hederin.
If you don’t die from it, you will be inspired by this grasping green. Elizabeth Browning was, when she wrote:
That headlong ivy! not a leaf will grow.
But thinking of a wreath, . . .
I like such ivy; bold to leap a height
‘Twas strong to climb! as good to grow on graves
As twist about a thyrsus; pretty too
(And that’s not ill) when twisted round a comb.
As was Charles Dickens, who wrote in The Ivy Green:
Whole ages have fled and their works decayed,
And nations have scattered been;
But the stout old Ivy shall never fade,
From its hale and hearty green.
The brave old plant, in its lonely days,
Shall fatten upon the past:
For the stateliest building man can raise
Is the Ivy’s food at last.
Creeping on where time has been,
A rare old plant is the Ivy green.
A true social climber, there is obviously a lot more to ivy than just a quaint adornment (or nuisance) on old buildings. Throughout history, ivy has been growing alongside and among humans, receiving their attention both scientific and poetic, and chances are it will continue to do so for a long, long time.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.