‘The Holly and the….’

Nature Notes with South Holderness Countryside Society


IT’S that time of year again, cold frosts, scraping car windscreens, the last tidying up session of the garden or the allotment and Christmas carols oozing repetitively from shops, cars and the TV; but what about this carol? 

It’s certainly an old and traditional one, The Holly and the Ivy, where holly represents Jesus and the ivy represents the Virgin Mary in true Christian symbolism. It’s a beautiful carol – but can anyone tell me (without peeking) how many times ivy is mentioned in all of the verses? I’ll come back to that. 

Both holly and ivy have been used for centuries to decorate the house across winter, holly representing the male, and ivy the female, and both staying green all year round so adding extra colour. It’s only when you start to look into the ancient mythology of both plants that you see how opinions are so contradictory; bring inside, don’t bring inside, cut, don’t cut, good, evil, they overshadow the true meaning of the carol. This happens rather a lot when paganism meets Christianity and pagan festivals become Christianised. Both sides meld, both sides benefit, edges become blurry. 

So, how many times is ivy mentioned in the carol? Once. Just one single time in the first line of the first verse. Seems a bit unfair. We start out expecting a decent comparison, a bit of a lyrical dance-off, ‘Of all the trees that are in the wood’, but then poor ivy is dropped! Never mentioned again. Let’s put that right. There are two subspecies of English ivy, or Hedera helix, also known as common ivy: one type spreads along the ground and the other climbs. Its name is a little misleading as helix tends to suggest a winding or twisting motion, however ivy doesn’t actually do this; but it can climb, trail or creep up to 30 yards if it has decent support. Ivy has two types of roots and both are important in its survival. 

The subterranean roots reach down into the soil to anchor the plant and to deliver nutrition to help the plant thrive. The aerial roots ooze a type of glue and produce little hairs which, as the root grows and pushes itself into little crevices, help to firmly attach the plant to its support. This in itself leads to just one of the arguments against ivy – does it, or does it not, damage its support? The two sides of the arguments are thus: its destructive nature causes walls to crumble as it pushes into and attaches itself to them – or – does it actually grow into existing cracks and help to glue and hold crumbling brickwork together? A second argument: does it hold water against a wall and increase dampness – or – does the waxy covering of the leaves repel water? According to English Heritage ivy roots cause minimal damage to walls unless there are already existing cracks which the roots can push into and cause deterioration, however, the plant can protect walls from humidity, heat, cold and pollution – especially at road sides.

FESTIVE: Bacchus Ivy. Photo by Tracey Netherton

Ivy is certainly a beautiful plant. It has lobed glossy leaves, either three or five lobes, and can be in a range of colours. Usually seen as dark green with paler veins, they can also be light green, red, yellow or white, or even variegated; but are they a gardener’s friend? Ivy is not parasitic in that its roots do not attack the tree to steal nutrients, but the weight of ivy can cause an older tree to crack and it may steal the sunlight from the tree canopy. Creeping ivy can prevent the same sunlight from reaching seedlings and may also smother wild flowers or ferns. Friend or foe in the garden? That seems to depend on how neat and tidy you want to keep the area and how much you value certain aspects of wildlife.

Ivy provides an amazing habitat for a huge range of beasties, bugs, bees, butterflies, bats, and a buffet for birds – and other creatures that don’t start with the letter ‘b’! If you have never been asked to remove ivy from a wall or a tree please take my advice – use full length fully sealed overalls, gloves, and full head protection. You have no idea just how much spider poop you will be covered in otherwise! 

The removal of ivy can be both difficult and repetitive. Sheer determination will be required; cutting back regularly, digging up roots, double cuts at ankle and shoulder height to unravel the climbing stems but taking care not to pull and damage the underlying tree. Gloves are also recommended when dealing with ivy as it contains falcarinol which can cause skin irritation, blisters and dermatitis. Despite being mildly poisonous English ivy is also considered to have medicinal properties. Hippocrates used ivy to reduce swelling, as an anaesthetic, and also to prevent intoxication. And that brings me back to the festive season again. 

Wearing a wreath of ivy leaves on your head was believed to prevent you from getting drunk. If this was good enough for Bacchus, the God of wine and agriculture, then it’s good enough for me to give it a try! Merry Christmas everyone!