The magic of ivy

© Amy Lewis

The humble ivy can be an incredible resource for wildlife in your garden year round

All too often ivy is overlooked, cut back or ripped out altogether – to the casual eye it's just not that interesting, and there are many more fun and pretty plants to grow in its place.

However, take a moment in September to have a real look, and you may be surprised at what you find: perfect little five-pointed stars, their zesty yellow-green petals and vibrant yellow stamens clustered in globe-shaped umbels standing in cheerful contrast to the glossy, dark-green leaves we're more familiar with.

Robust and evergreen, tenacious and rambling, what begins as downy, flexible stems creeping steadily up and over nearly any reasonably static surface can soon become sturdy, woody trunks and branches as the plant matures.

Ivy on a tree

Ivy on a tree © Scott Petrek

Ivy's amazing benefits to other wildlife

list rooting hairs on the stems of juvenile plants provide the excellent clinging power that allows ivy to climb up anything from a tree to a brick wall – it even clings to itself. The dense foliage provides a safe haven from predators and bad weather for birds, insects and small mammals. Birds often nest amongst the dark leaves and bats creep into crevices created by the overlapping stems to roost during the day.

It is the food plant of caterpillars of the beautiful holly blue butterfly, the bold angle shades moth, and the striking swallow-tailed moth – all of which we have seen in our garden. If you look closely in amongst the ivy, you may spot the caterpillars of the swallow-tailed moth – but you'll have to have a keen eye: they look exactly like a dry twig!

The flowers – which only appear on mature plants – provide one of the most important native sources of nectar and pollen for insects, not only because they arrive at a time of year when other sources are so scarce, but because the nectar itself is much more energy-rich than other flowers produce. This provides a lifeline for our beleaguered pollinators, particularly bees, which rely on ivy flowers in autumn to provide them with the energy to survive the cold winter months.

Wasp on ivy flower

Wasp on ivy flower © Paul Hobson

A buzzing haven in our gardens

Walking past a mature, flowering stand of ivy provides a happy assault on your ears as the clouds of bees, wasps, hoverflies and other flying insects create not so much a hum as a roar. And there's a good chance that many of the bees you see on ivy will be those of its namesake – the ivy bee; a recent visitor to our shores but one which looks set to stay, and an important pollinator of ivy.

As the flowers fade and we move into November, more visual interest arrives as berries swell and ripen to blue-black. These will be largely untouched until winter as the birds make the most of the autumn bounty of other berries such as rowan and hawthorn. But when they do move onto ivy berries they couldn't pick a more nutritiously important, naturally available treat – recent research found that ivy berries contain almost as many calories as Mars bars!

The high fat content of the berries is perfect for fattening up to prepare for the cold of winter. Come December, ivy plants become a busy bustle of blackbirds and song thrushes as well as many other smaller birds.

From a symbol of intellectual achievement in ancient Rome to a talisman against evil spirits in the home; an attractive natural screen to a year-round haven for wildlife, ivy truly is a plant for all seasons. By growing or keeping ivy in your garden, even just a small area, you will be playing your part in creating a living landscape through which wildlife can move and thrive alongside us.