Churchyard Nature Note with Andrew Tompsett

December 2014

The Holly and the Ivy


Holly and Ivy are both used in most church decorations at Christmas time but over the years there have been, and still are, very different attitudes to these two evergreens.  Whilst holly is, of course, a tree and is praised for its shiny foliage, hard white wood and brilliant scarlet berries, ivy, a climber and not a real tree has often been regarded as sinister even malevolent. This is probably much to do with its habit of appearing to strangle trees and buildings. In the well known Christmas carol holly is exalted with religious symbolism. However, apart from the title, nothing more is said about ivy in the verses.  It seems that in view of long held superstitions it is thought safer to ignore it.

Apparently some medieval poems suggest that the bold, red berries of holly indicate a male character and the black berries and clinging habit of ivy, a female. Such ideas would not be entertained these days and in any case it is clearly wrong since fruit-bearing hollies are, in fact, female.
There is a German tradition that a piece of ivy tied up outside the church is supposed to protect it from lightning, not to be relied on here!
Our dislike of ivy is however, largely misplaced. It is a very successful plant and as we have said in previous nature notes, our form, Atlantic Ivy  (Hedera helix ssp hibernica), predominates and is widespread throughout Cornwall.  Its value lies in the shelter and food which it provides for many wild creatures, particularly insects and birds.  It is therefore valued or, at least tolerated, until it becomes a problem. In our churchyard its rapid growth covers walls, gravestones and tree trunks amazingly quickly and once it fills the canopy of a tree its dense foliage makes the tree susceptible to wind damage especially with some weaker growing species such as hawthorn. The north wall of the churchyard has, over the years, become deeply shrouded in ivy and we are concerned that the creeping growth of Ivy has penetrated cracks and weakness between the stones forcing the blocks apart weakening the whole structure. The cost of rebuilding this weakened wall is estimated to be over £3,000. This is very bad news.
How does this happen?  If you take a closer look you will notice that the growth of ivy is of two kinds. Juvenile growth climbs and grips surfaces with its creepers. These stems do not flower, their sole aim at this stage is to reach the light as quickly as possible and in doing so often finds any cracks and weaknesses to assist on the upward journey.  On reaching the full daylight the growth changes to the mature form. The shoots thicken becoming sturdy branches bearing flowers and fruit. It is this top-heavy growth that is responsible for toppling many a wall or tree.
In most of the UK outside Cornwall the predominant ivy species is Common Ivy Hedera helix ssp helix.  Most of us have come across Ground Ivy, a ground-hugging herb of the mint family but this is no relation nor is the Poison Ivy of the USA and Asia!