The Helix Conundrum

Originally published March 2015

Hello everyone! Sitting here watching a rather insipid flurry of snow melt as it hits the ground I am thinking back to my scribble three years ago (As Light as a Snow flake, March 2012) when our Ladies of the Wood were succumbing to the weight of a snowy blanket and shedding limbs left, right and centre. Thus far this year they have been spared the chilly mantle but as I mentioned last month we have lost a few trees over the last five months. The largest of which is residing in the pond still, despite the efforts of a stalwart gang of Quarry Wood volunteers. We have made a start on moving the fallen Birch and hope to complete the task before the denizens of land, pond and air consider it a suitable piece of natural real estate.

TQW - Mar 2015 - ivy illustration

Before the trees become fully clothed in their photosynthetic glory it is time for us to enter into one of the most fiercely fought debates in conservation and gardening circles; the great Hedera helix conundrum, a problem that is literally spiralling out of control! The binomial moniker should give all you classical scholars a clue as to what this is all about. The combination of Hedera, possibly from the Latin adhae (cling), and helix, from the Greek word for twisted or curved, is a perfect description of our Common Ivy, a plant loved and abhorred in equal measure. Common Ivy is the only British member of the tropical plant Family Araliaceae, and, alongside Holly and Mistletoe, is the most prominent woodland plant throughout the winter months. For this reason it featured in the Roman festival of Saturnalia and, along with its two winter woodland companions, later became associated with Christmas.

TQW Mar 2015 pics 3-4

This woody evergreen with the distinctive lobed leaves is as much at home forming thick layers of foliage at ground level as it is climbing up just about anything it comes across. As a young stem comes into contact with a support, whether it be plant or stone, a series of small aerial roots form binding the stem to the surface. Flowering takes place when the plant reaches a light area such as the top of a tree or sunny side of a building. The flower-bearing shoots have completely different looking leaves to the shade-tolerant juvenile part of the plant. Gone are the familiar lobes as they are replaced by elliptical shaped leaves with long, pointed tips.

TQW Mar 2015 pics 1-2

It is widely believed that Ivy is a parasite, draining the life sap out of those trees it envelops. In fact, the plant gets its nutrients from the soil where the feeding roots are firmly anchored. The sole purpose of the small aerial roots is to aid the plant climb and, at most, they penetrate the outermost layer of tree bark only. The real damage is as a result of the weight of the shrub. Stems can grow to the width of an adult’s arm and add a considerable amount of weight to a tree. The bushy crowns of Ivy increase air resistance during the windy winter months and Ivy-clad, shallow-rooted trees, such as some of our lovely Ladies in Quarry Wood, are often the first casualties of the season.

TQW Mar 2015 pics 5-6
It is tempting to think that the plant is so widespread that we would be right to strip the trees of as much of it as possible. The photos taken over the last few weeks at our little reserve would seem to justify this argument. However, the wildlife value of the plant is extremely high. It provides nesting areas for birds and shadowy roosts for bats to hide away during the day. The flowers are a major source of pollen and nectar for butterflies, wasps, bees and flies and the berries, which contain a high fat content, provide an invaluable, early energy boost for birds. Numerous small mammals scurry about in the ground cover and spider webs adorn the plant at every level.

Normal conservation practice would be to leave Ivy-smothered trees well alone in order to promote biodiversity. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, 2000 birds and bats are protected. It is an offence to destroy nests whether they are in use or under construction. Breeding and roosting sites for bats must not be damaged or destroyed irrespective of whether the bats are in residence at the time. With this in mind we have to, carefully, make safe those trees on the Reserve which have succumbed to the Ivy damage during the adverse weather. This is to reduce the risk of trees toppling onto footpaths or causing a ‘domino’ effect amongst the Birch stands.


So stick up ivy and the bays,
and then restore the heathen ways.
Green will remind you of the Spring,
though this great day denies the thing,
and mortifies the earth, and all
but your wild revels, and loose hall.
The True Christians, Henry Vaughan (1678)

So there it is, worshipped by Pagans, used decoratively by Christians, beloved by conservationists and both welcomed and vilified by practically everyone else. Enjoy the wintery walks but stay safe on windy days, we are not out of the woods yet, and hopefully we never shall be!

Paul Johnson


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