Name: Ivy (Hedera helix)
Otherwise known as: Common Ivy
Habitat: An evergreen climbing member of the Araliaceae family reaching lengths of 40m given sufficient support. It has leathery, shiny, dark green, alternate, palmate leaves and produces clusters of green flowers that transform into black berries in autumn. The stems have fibrous aerial roots that exude a sticky resin enabling the plant to climb.
What does it do: Ivy was highly regarded by the ancients and featured prominently in their celebrations. The plant was dedicated to the god Bacchus, whose adherents wore wreaths of Ivy around the brow in the belief that it could prevent intoxication. Greek physicians claimed that a bruised and boiled handful of leaves was a remedy for drunkeness. In ancient Athens newly married couples were given fronds of Ivy as an emblem of fidelity.
Ivy, like Mistletoe and Holly, is still used to decorate houses at Christmas time, a practice the early Christians Churches tried – unsuccessfully – to suppress because of the association with pagan festivals.
The toxic nature of the plant was recognised by medieval herbalists, but they valued if for topical applications such as poultices that could reduce pain from neuralgia, rheumatism and sciatica. Mild tinctures were given for dental abscesses and whooping cough.
Culpepper says of Ivy: “It is an enemy to the nerves and sinews taken inwardly, but most excellent outwardly”. During the Great Plague, citizens of London washed themselves and their children with a concoction made from vinegar and Ivy berries in the belief that it would protect them. Ivy is a purge for intestinal worms. Women in the Baltic states make Ivy compresses, which they claim will reduce cellulite. The saponins in the plant in solution will darken hair and revive the look of black silk.