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by Des Kennedy
by Des Kennedy

Des Kennedy is a celebrated public speaker, having performed at numerous conferences, schools, festivals, botanical gardens, art galleries, garden shows and wilderness gatherings in Canada and the U.S. His humour, irreverence and passion for gardening and the natural world have made him a 'must see' speaker in demand across the country.

December 14, 2014

I stepped outside one dark evening last week and was startled by a sudden rustling over at the pump house. My flashlight beam picked out a couple of small deer up on their hind legs chewing at ivy leaves against the building’s wall.
In many ways, ivy’s at its best in the off-season, and not just for the deer, who don’t touch it throughout the growing season. Along with holly and mistletoe, it’s one of the old world evergreens most closely associated with solstice and Christmas.
Perhaps coincidentally, ivy’s dedicated to the wine god, Dionysius. In classical legend he created ivy from the corpse of the nymph Cissos, who danced with such joyful abandon she fell dead from exhaustion at his feet. This mythological precursor of the modern office party led to the tradition of ivy wreaths hanging above the doorways of taverns and wine shops.
Most of the ivies we deal with -- there are dozens of named forms -- are cultivars of English ivy, Hedera helix, a member of the ginseng family native to Europe, Asia and North Africa.
The vine’s virtues are numerous: easy to propagate, it grows vigorously in full sun or deep shade, or primly as a house plant. It’s drought tolerant once established and can be pruned or sheared to shape. Additionally, it’s a valuable wildlife plant.
Its adaptability for horizontal or vertical landscaping uses derives from the adventitious rootlets that form along the stems, allowing the vine to root as a dense ground cover or to cling to walls. English ivy has an entrenched reputation for destroying brick walls, but experts maintain the opposite: that against sound walls it promotes dryness and warmth, reduces weathering and adds beauty. It is, however, in my experience lethal to shake or shingle roofs.
Draped curtains of ivy are a fine way to disguise the sullen blankness of a cement block wall or the imprisoning effects of a chain-link fence.
Rubble piles and other eyesores can be converted into pleasing green mounds, and old stumps or snags turned into attractive features when festooned with ivy.
It’s not recommended to grow it up living trees, as it will eventually choke them. Like the dance-mad nymph, ivy’s full of energy, and given the right conditions, can become an invasive weed, overrunning native woodlands as it has in many places.
Some of the cultivars make versatile house plants too -- effective in a terrarium or hanging baskets, or used as a trailer in planters. Many small and miniature leafed forms are employed to create topiary shapes on wire frames.
The dense curtains of foliage that mature vines create make ideal nesting sites for many bird species, especially those needing a nesting site before deciduous trees are fully leafed out. Hummingbirds, mockingbird, cardinal, rufous-sided towhee and song sparrow all nest in it.
At the other end of the season, English ivy’s one of the last plants of the year to produce available nectar for insects. Mature vines like the one over our pumphouse produce multiple umbels of small yellowish green flowers in September and October. These cast an intoxicating yeast-like scent, and on warm afternoons the flowers are swarming with various bumblebees, honey bees, wasps and nectar-loving flies.On the down side wildlife-wise, thick ivy can also provide hiding places for rodents, slugs and snails.
Hedera helix is listed as hardy to zone 6. Two of its hardiest forms are H.h. ‘Baltica’ which has pleasing small leaves with white veins, turning purplish in winter, and ‘Bulgarica’ with somewhat larger leaves.
Many of the most desirable cultivars are not hardy below zone 8 unless given special protection, but they include some real beauties. ‘Atropurpurea’ has dark green leaves that turn a gorgeous coppery purple in winter. ‘Erecta’ and ‘Congesta’ are upright cultivars bearing small leaves on erect shoots like small spires.A number of forms have wavy-edged or ruffled leaves, including the unhappily named ‘Fluffy Ruffles.’
At our place we grow several variegated forms. These show especially well in vertical situations, and I like to use them to cover old stumps. ‘Sulphur Heart’ and ‘Goldheart’ are very showy golden forms. ‘Adam’ and ‘Eva’ have a more subdued creamy variegation. In our coastal conditions, the variegated leaves show far more vividly in winter and do a brilliant job of illuminating gloomy corners.
In colder climes, a comparable effect may be had indoors using small leafed ‘Hahn’s Self Branching,’ ‘Conglomerata’ or ‘Minima’ in pots.
For all gardeners, of course, this month marks that hopeful point of the year when the sun sits still before beginning its return to our gardens. I wish all loyal readers a happy solstice and joyful holiday season, but beseech you to take it easy with the dancing. 

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