English Ivy, Beauty Or Bane In The Garden?

Ilona Erwin

Beloved of some and bane to others, English Ivy, Hedera helix, is a groundcover/climber that I happen to love. It is on the PCA “Least Wanted” List,  so caveats are sprinkled through this profile.

This is one of those plants that has both pros and cons, and elicits strong opinions. Some hold the opinion that you should not buy or plant it, that removal is in order, while others feel the benefits to pollinators (honeybees and monarch butterflies) along with its good looks are worth the trouble.

However you grow Hedera helix, keep it in check and remove it from around valuable trees, and the siding of your home.

As A Groundcover

Good as groundcover, especially where bulbs are planted, I would not use it in areas where delicate plants are wanted- the ivy is just too vigorous. So don’t place it in your rock garden, as it will swamp everything. It has long been used in urban areas, and a pool of it underneath a city tree always has a classic appearance.

It will wend its way to the inside of a building, however, so be careful about its tendency to grow up the walls.

I allowed the ivy to get a little too comfortable on a wooden wall of my home. At first, my intention had been just a few strands climbing artistically along a wall to frame a window. But then, the other day I noticed a bit of ivy on the INSIDE of my house, poking its way through the frame.

Now that is letting something get a little too comfortable, when it starts coming inside, eh? Just so you know when you plant English ivy that it can be aggressive (which is true of all those vines that have “stayfasts” …like Virginia Creeper and Boston Ivy)

In The Landscape

One of the attractive things about English ivy is the Old World feel that this deep green groundcover can lend to a landscape. Foliage color and weight can give a presence to your garden design. The deep green, almost heavy, look of ivy and taxus bushes are something characteristic to the English gardens.

Beware Of Too Much Dark Green

Borrowed by Americans throughout our suburbs in foundation plantings,  these two plant items can be a drab and tired look. I like to think about this like black and white in a picture or interior design. It is the contrast that is exciting, and the dark green of a plant like ivy operates as “black” … a contrast … a background for something light or bright … giving depth and seen by the eye in a way that “shadows” appear. It feels dignified, having an established ambiance from the graceful cover with curled tendril arms embracing a tree or winding along the ground.

variegated ivy

variegated ivy

One way I love to use English ivy is in containers, they will readily grow in any type of plant container; indoors as well as out.

The Way English Ivy Looks

Ivy cultivars have many variations: from the iconic green with white veins to those almost all white or with gold variegation. Different leaf forms, and growth patterns make more variations. The generic deep green type with three lobed leaves is very hardy, the other cultivars may not be.

It has many interesting forms to its leaves as well as the different colorations. Tiny pointed leaves on the ‘Needlepoint’ variety, heart shapes like ‘Sweetheart’ (Deltoidea), curly types like ‘Manda’s Crested’ give interesting texture and variation. This is one of its charms.

This is a plant that creeps and climbs, it can give a very solid look to a wall or fencing.

Not all forms of English ivy are hardy in Ohio, so it is useful to check the hardiness zone, anything of greater number than Zone 5 is risking loss in one of harsher winters, unless you have a protected spot.

ivy aerial root

ivy aerial root

As it climbs you will notice root-like “holdfasts” or “stayfasts” that will carry the plant upwards in the trees and on the walls of buildings. These are rootlike formations which anchor the plant to rocks and other structures. Ivy’s holdfasts collect nutrients and can climb as high as 50 feet. Many people no longer like it for this quality.

Somewhat Toxic

It is considered somewhat toxic, especially the berries, but is used in medicine.

Useful Wildlife Plant

Birds eat the berries, its leaves are food sources for some butterflies, and its nectar provides for insects when few other plants are available for forage.

To Grow

Easy to start from cuttings, in soil or water; or divisions.

  • 6 to 8 inches tall, growing along the ground.
  • Zones 5 to 10
  • tolerates air pollution
  • prefers slightly alkaline soil, part sun to shade
  • needs moisture to start with, but quite tolerant of poor conditions and soils.
  • a woody perennial vine


English Ivy has two forms, the climbing and creeping one we see when it is used as a groundcover, and when it forms a treelike form.

“Ivies have two leaf types, with palmately lobed juvenile leaves on creeping and climbing stems and unlobed cordate adult leaves on fertile flowering stems” -Wikipedia entry on Hedera

Very helpful info on growing ivy.

Plant Family Relationships
  • Order: Apiales
  • Family: Araliaceae
  • Subfamily: Aralioideae
  • Genus: Hedera

The main complaints about English Ivy is its non native origins, its invasiveness and the fact that it smothers out native plants.

Fun Facts

A substance in ivy, falcarinol, can cause dermatitis in some people.

In herbal medicine this plant’s extracts have expectorant qualities (don’t use without consulting your medical practitioner).

Nanoparticle secretions from ivy’s root hairs have been found to block dangerous UV rays.

Ivy appears in English ChristmasVisit Christmas pages, read about Christmas caroling carols and songs, as it is used for traditional holiday decorations; “Holly and The Ivy”

Descartes used the symbolic meaning of ivy in its negative sense of its dependence on the supporting structure.

“We see that it hardly ever happens that the followers of an ancient philosopher surpass Ÿhim; and I’m sure that most of Aristotle’s disciples of today would be happy to know as much about nature as he did, even if that meant never knowing anything that he didn’t. They are like ivy, which doesn’t tend to climb higher than the tree that supports it, and often even grows downward after reaching the tree-top.”

Ivies make wonderful, quick growing topiaries.

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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.