Churchyard Nature Note with Andrew Tompsett

November 2017

Holly berries

Ivy fruit

Holly flowers

The Holly and the Ivy


The well known Christmas carol tells us that when both Holly and Ivy are full grown, the former bears the crown. Certainly it is the more popular because of its brilliant berries essential for the festive season’s decorations. Also, of course, Holly can form a nice free-standing tree which Ivy can never do.

But let’s say a word in favour of Ivy because it has its good points. Firstly it saves the sore hands which the prickles of most holly varieties inflict on the wreath maker. The autumn flowers of ivy are   attractive to late insects and bee keepers will often leave the ivy honey unharvested to feed the colony over winter. On a sunny day look out for the beautiful Red Admiral butterfly on ivy flowers. Ivy berries are eaten by several bird species in the spring at a time when other foods are scarce.

Ivy is a fast grower and can rapidly cover a whole wall bringing fears that it will damage the mortar, get in the gutters and make the wall damp. However such fears are generally misplaced since a covering of Ivy is more likely to keep a wall both warmer and drier. It is when ivy grows up on very old walls that it can penetrate the mortar and loosen the stones. For this reason we had to rebuild part of the north wall of the churchyard recently. Another potential problem is when Ivy smothers a weaker tree making it top-heavy and liable to blow down in a gale. Many Hawthorn trees are not strong enough to support a covering of ivy and can topple and this has sometimes occurred on local roadsides. Several old ivy covered tree stumps have had to be removed from the churchyard for safety reasons.

Our native species of ivy (Hedera helix) is now present in many other countries including USA and Australia where it is said to grow more strongly than here because of the absence of pests and diseases which exist here. The plant is classed as moderately toxic and can cause dermatitis on some people. Many other weaker-growing and variegated species exist and can be easily propagated when they become straggly. Four inch long tips taken off, and inserted, several to a small pot, produces an attractive new plant quite quickly at almost any time of the year since ivies are completely hardy and root rapidly.