Bacchus’ wreath

In Roman mythology, Bacchus was the god of intoxication, who was often shown wearing a wreath of ivy and grapevines.

Within these times, ivy was also a symbol of intellectual achievements, with ivy wreaths being used to crown poetry contest winners in ancient Rome, and winning athletes in Greece.

Other common names: bentwood, bindwood, common English ivy

The Common ivy, Hedera helix, is native to the UK and can be found throughout the British Isles, and many parts of Europe and western Asia. It grows in woodlands, or along hedgerows or walls, forming as either a climber or layer at ground level. As a woody climber, they can grow up to a colossal height of 10-30m!

The leaves of this ivy are often dark green and glossy, with pale veins. Juvenile leaves have the classic lobed shape, with 3-5 lobes, whilst more mature leaves being oval or heart-shaped (as seen in the pictures). The ivy can provide an important food source for many butterfly and moth larvae, including holly blue and swallow-tailed moths.

Yellow-green flowers are produced by mature plants from September to November, and they appear in clusters, known as umbels. Bees, hoverflies, and common wasps are key pollinators which visit these flowers before hibernation. These also include some rare insects, like the golden hoverfly, which has only been seen in ancient woodlands in the south-east of England.

Black, berry-like fruits, as shown in the pictures, form in place of the flowers between November and January. These fruits contain a high fat content, making them a valuable food source for many birds, including woodpigeons and blackbirds, especially over winter when birds need this energy to stay warm.

Within the UK, there are two subspecies of H. helix: ssp. helix (common ivy), and ssp. hibernica (Irish ivy). These two subspecies are very similar, however, H. hibernica cannot climb and can only spread across the ground.

The myth stating that ivy kills trees is shown to not be the case for common ivy. Yes, this ivy does use trees and walls for support and to reach greater sunlight levels. However, it has its own root system within soils allowing nutrient and water uptake from this source. This proves common ivy is not parasitic, and its presence does not indicate unhealthy trees, and neither creates tree-safety issues, of damage the trees in any way.

Also in terms of ancient walls and buildings, the English Heritage has concluded that this ivy can help preserve these structures. This would be through the ivy protecting the stonework from rain and frost. More information about this and other vegetation on walls available here (common ivy on page 4).