It’s week 10 of the Urban Herbology Winter Foraging Challenge! This week I have laid more paths at my volkstuin garden, edged some with wood and am ordering plant labels. Have been listing the edibles and medicinal plants which are already growing there and making a crazy-long list of plants that I intend to add there this year. At present there are over 40 distinct types of herbs growing in my volkstuin garden, some as single specimens and others as abundantly as weeds! Am looking forward to welcoming more of my students there this year for walks, 1:1s and workshops. I think that some good labelling will help this along – and help prevent me from trampling on sleeping herbs during the soggy winter!
Here’s an update ..
This week’s herb grows prolifically in my volkstuin garden. Many gardeners pull it out as they find it can smother an area with some speed, but I welcome it and try to guide it to provide me with wildlife friendly fence and frame covering. It is evergreen and a very overlooked historic herb. This week’s herb is Ivy (Hedera helix).
Ivy is a cunning shapeshifter! It has various leaf shapes, depending upon it’s life cycle stage and location. It readily creeps around damp soil, covering the ground and taking full advantage of any sunlight but perfectly tolerating shade. It is found often in woodland settings and my volkstuin provides it with the dampness and shade – hence, it grows abundantly and very healthily there. Notice the smooth, barely lobed leaf shape, on leaves attached to a flowering stem of ivy:
Many people who come on my walks, ask me about Poison Ivy, as found in the USA and Canada. That plant (Toxicodenron radicans) causes contact dermatitis, which is a cause of great irritation to gardeners and foragers. Sometimes, reactions to the plant can be serious. The Ivy which I am familiar with (Hedera helix), is an unrelated plant. It can cause contact dermatitis in some people but this is far less common than for Poison Ivy. I am interested to hear from anyone who has had a reaction to Hedera helix, as I have not had direct contact with any such people over the years. Whereas I know many who have had uncomforatable times due to Poison ivy!
Here are a few photos of Hedera helix at different life cycle stages. Notice the classic five lobed leaves, as the plant spreads and climbs just a little.
Ivy seems to like climbing high, to produce flowers which have the best chance of being fertilised by bees and then to give the seeds the best chance for dispersal far and wide. The flowers are quietly beautiful and the developing seed heads looks space age. People often ask me about them. Ivy grows up to about 30m high but to do that, it must have support.
This summer, I witnessed a mass of wasps, boring into the unopened flowers of ivy, at the end of summer, and I guess, drinking the nectar, before the flowers had a chance to open. Come autumn/winter, Ivy flowers are often in abundance (although we rarely notice them due to their yellow/green colour) and they provide an essential source of food for bees and other insects, before they bed down for winter.
Ivy is often given a hard time because it grows up buildings and trees. It has suckering roots growing along the stems and these embed it very effectively into cement, stonework and onto tree bark. When it is pulled off – which is quite easy to do – the suckering roots will pull off cement, small pieces of stone or brick and some tree bark. One fear for them growing up trees, is that the ivy becomes so heavy, it destabilises the tree or it causes too much shade or it strangles it. I disagree with all these thoughts. Mostly ivy, growing up trees is a wonderful thing; providing incredible wildlife habitats and actually protecting trees from harsh climatic conditions. Some green space contractors rotate which trees they de-ivy each year. I think it a pity and unnecessary work.
Ivy can help to stabilise old piles of racks and ruins but it will of course cover then and hide them from view. Note the old painting of Tintern Abbey – what a lovely place that is, not far from my parents home. I remember it being ivy clad as a child. Now it is clean of ivy and the ruin is somewhat renovated. Removing the ivy will have caused some damage and certainly makes it look less romantic but now the abbey structure can be more effectively maintained in a safe structural state.
So how can we use ivy as food or medicine?
The leaves and berries can be used both externally and internally. They contain saponins, sterols, polyacetylenes, flavonoids and volatile oils.
Externally, ivy can be used as a poultice or compress and has an age old reputation for calming inflamed and painful rheumatic joints. It is also used as an infused oil as an anti-cellulite preparation. I mentioned above that some people will develop contact dermatitis from Hedera helix. So always be wary when trying this herb for the first time.
Make infused oil from fresh leaves, if you would like to try it as a gentle skin stimulant. Macerate for about 6 weeks, strain and use as a salve base or as a massage oil for congested skin areas. Ivy is a constituent in many expensive anti-cellulite preparations.
There is some much lore associated with ivy. Like Holly, Ivy has been used to decorate homes since ancient Pagan times. Poets’ wreaths are made from ivy leaves, as is the wreath of Bacchus. It was thought that gently boiling bruised ivy leaves in wine would remove the wines powers of intoxication. Perhaps the alcohol simply boiled away? Perhaps not. Ivy has long been a sign of fidelity and was given to newly weds in ancient Greece.
Another traditional use for Ivy is as relief for sunburn. Soft ivy twigs, when boiled in butter were thought to produce a useful remedy. Clearly, not for experimenting on severe burns but worth investigation.
Internally, it is a renowned expectorant and decongestant of the ear, nose and throat. Ivy has with an affinity for the upper respiratory system. It has a good reputation for easing bronchitis symptoms. It can be taken as a medicinal tea. You should not have too much of it and avoid it during pregnancy and breastfeeding but this is actually a more widely used herb than you may realise. Extracts of Ivy are found in a very popular over the counter mucus relieving product called Bisolvon. In some countries, Bisolvon packaging shows ivy leaves. Interesting to see how a commercial product contains some of the constituents of this common plant.
A pleasant tasting tea, which can help to ease congestion in the nasal and upper chest could be made from 1/2tsp of dried and then crushed ivy leaves. Infuse for 5 minutes then strain and sip. It combines well with Elderflower and Thyme (you may like to try 1/3 teaspoon each, dried, in a large cup). You can easily dry Ivy leaves in a paper bag. Make sure they are not tightly packed in the bag, label and leave in a room temperature, dry environment. Fresh leaves can also be used. Dried ones are convenient for use.
I find that working in the garden, or wandering around ivy rich woodland and streets, has a really opening and refreshing action on my respiratory system. It also seems to clear my mind. I like to crush a leaf (which is not so easy – Ivy leaves are built to last!) and deeply inhale the released volatile constituents.
There are many other ways to weave ivy into your life. I love to grow it as a cover plant, over piles of sticks, over dull looking fences and especially over arches. As a semi-glossy evergreen, it can provide amazingly effective form to a garden in the wintertime.
I also like to make simple crowns from long ivy stems. I did this in the autumn at one of the Witching season gatherings. I find that ivy crowns provide comfort, clarity and protection. Ivy can be grown inside of the house and I find it a quiet, refreshing presence to have around the place. Be wary though, ivy needs some moisture but not too much. It appreciated a gentle rinse occasionally and not to be dried out. When I make an alter with ivy wound around, I find it helps to splash or spray the ivy each day, to keep it fresh and vibrant.
Next Zoom meeting for my course students is this Friday evening. We will be focusing on Ivy, learning more about its active constituents, actions and uses and we will meditate on it to see how we can weave it’s magic and medicine into our lives. If you are joining the Zoom, you may like to bring a candle and some fresh Ivy leaves to the online meeting. If you have enough ivy growing near you and you feel the urge for full urban herbology immersion – why not make yourself a simple crown from a long stem of ivy? I look forward to seeing you there!