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Gardeners' Dirt: English ivy versatile plant

By Barb Henry - Victoria County Master GardenerEdited by Charla Borchers Leon
Sept. 27, 2012 at 4:27 a.m.

English ivy has palmate leaves with veins emanating from the union of the petiole and the leaf blade. Shown here are leaves from the same plant with variations in lobes (five on left leaf and three on right leaf). Leaf color tone varies with maturity.

English ivy (Hedera helix), one of my favorite foliage plants, is native to England, Ireland, Europe and the Mediterranean region.

It was probably brought to America by early emigrants for ornamental use. Like many ornamental plants that originated in other parts of the world, English ivy is known to be an invasive plant in an uncontrolled environment.

In the landscape, however, it provides accent, richness and depth adding to the artistry of a well-designed garden.

Growing conditions

The plant is a shade loving, climbing, woody-vined evergreen that comes in a variety of leaf sizes, shapes and variegations of greens, creams and whites.

It is hardy for our area and doesn't need to be brought inside for the winter. Once established outdoors it is tolerant of a wide range of moisture conditions, although it does not do well in extremely wet conditions.

Inside, it needs to be kept moist, but not wet. It enjoys being lightly misted often and needs brightly lit areas.

Ground cover

In Texas, it is a popular ground cover for deeply shaded areas, and is recommended by Texas A&M Extension Horticulturists for this use. Once established, it will quickly cover a large area with a deep-green, thick carpet and is relatively pest-free needing little care.

It can take some sun, but can become scorched in hot exposed areas. Because it is an evergreen, it will continue to grow through the winter months, although much more slowly.

Controlled climber

The ivy will tend to climb up tree trunks and walls, but can be kept under control if trimmed regularly as needed. Once established, the stems produce hairy roots that anchor firmly to the surface of whatever it is climbing.

Although it is not parasitic, it can damage and kill trees with its weight and shading. Masonry, brick and wooden walls can be permanently marked if the ivy is removed.

English ivy can be an unwelcome invasive plant because of this tendency to climb and spread with vigor. These are the very traits that make it so desirable if controlled.

A south wall of my home is covered with English ivy, which has remained green and healthy through all the weather variations we have endured over the past decade. Ivy-covered walls always evoke feelings of stability and peace for me personally.

Floral favorite

A favorite with florists, Hedera helix is a common choice for topiaries since it is easily trained into various shapes. It is mixed with other foliage and flowering plants for elaborate container arrangements and is a popular addition to bridal bouquets.

Easy propagation

From cuttings - Propagation is relatively easy from cuttings. Depending on the size of the container/pot, five or six cuttings can be inserted directly into the potting medium and pinched back as it grows to produce a full, bushy plant or allowed to trail.

William Welch, well-known Texas A&M horticulturist, recommends lightening commercial potting medium for containers of Hedera helix by adding in about 1/3 sharp sand or calcined clay (baked or expanded clay).

From berries dropped by birds - English ivy is also spread by birds that eat the small, dark berries that only occasionally form if the plant has perfect conditions. The plant can be slightly toxic if eaten, causing nausea and vomiting. Birds seem to know to limit how many berries they eat to avoid this toxicity.

If you have a friend or neighbor with English ivy in their garden, I highly recommend that you offer to help with the next trimming. I'm sure they will allow you all the cuttings you will need to start your own containers, topiaries and ground cover. Let your imagination run free. Create your own English ivy masterpiece.

The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or, or comment on this column at



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