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English Ivy Symbolism, Traditions and Mythology

English ivy leaves
English ivy leaves | Source

English ivy is an attractive plant in the ginseng family. It's a climbing, trailing and creeping vine that forms dense coverings over trees and other supports. The plant is often admired for its beautiful appearance on the walls of buildings. In the past, English ivy was valued for more than its appearance, however. The plant had important symbolic meanings and was part of a rich mythology. Even today, some people appreciate the symbolism of the ivy plant.

English ivy, or Hedera helix, is native to Europe, western Asia and North Africa. It has been introduced to many other parts of the world as an ornamental plant. Ivy has large leaves with interesting shapes, spreads rapidly over a wide variety of supports and is evergreen and perennial. These traits ensure that the plant is noticed.

English ivy berries
English ivy berries | Source

The English Ivy Plant

It's easy to imagine how ivy first drew attention to itself. It has lobed and often large leaves, grows in many different environments and sometimes spreads aggressively. It can climb to great heights, using its aerial roots to create strong attachments to its support as it ascends. When an ivy plant is allowed to grow undisturbed, its older stems can become as thick as those of some trees.

Despite the fact that it adheres to tree trunks, English ivy isn't a parasite. Only the roots attached to the ground penetrate their substrate to absorb nutrients. The function of the aerial roots is attachment to a support, not absorption.

Today, ivy is sometimes considered to be a nuisance rather than an asset. This is especially true where ivy is an introduced plant. In its native habitat it's more likely to form a peaceful but assertive part of its environment.

The vegetative, climbing stage of English ivy is the most noticeable and the one that most people are familiar with. Its leaves are medium to dark green, shiny and thick. The leaf veins are conspicuous and are light yellow or white in color. The leaves of the reproductive stage of English ivy are oval with pointed tips and have no lobes. Ivy has clusters of greenish yellow flowers and produces clumps of blue-black berries.

Red wine grapes; both grapes and ivy were symbols of Dionysus
Red wine grapes; both grapes and ivy were symbols of Dionysus | Source
The giant fennel, or Ferula communis
The giant fennel, or Ferula communis | Source
A gold stater from the city of Lampsacus, cIrca 360-340 BC; the coin depicts either Dionysus or Priapos (Priapus) wearing a crown or wreath of ivy leaves from the reproductive stage of the plant
A gold stater from the city of Lampsacus, cIrca 360-340 BC; the coin depicts either Dionysus or Priapos (Priapus) wearing a crown or wreath of ivy leaves from the reproductive stage of the plant | Source

English Ivy and the Ancient Deities of Wine

Dionysus was the Ancient Greek god of wine, agriculture, festivity and theatre. The festivals related to Dionysus sometimes included drunken frenzy and ecstasy as an important component of the revelry. In Ancient Rome Dionysus was known as Bacchus.

In most versions of the ancient stories about Dionysus, his father is Zeus, the king of the gods, and his mother is the human Seleme. Both the grapevine and the ivy vine are his symbols.

Dionysus is often depicted wearing a crown of ivy and carrying a thyrsus. The thyrsus was a wand or staff made from a stalk of the giant fennel plant or the branch of a tree. Ivy was wrapped around the stalk or branch, which was topped with a pine cone. The thyrsus is believed to have been a fertility symbol. Dionysus sometimes carries a kantharos, or drinking cup, as well as a thyrsus.

Why did grapes and ivy become associated with Dionysus/Bacchus? Ancient people believed that Dionysus discovered how to make wine from grapes and taught the skill to humans. Therefore he became the god of wine. English ivy was said to grow abundantly over the mythical mountain of Nysa, the childhood home of Dionysus, which may explain the link between ivy and the god.

In the Middle Ages ivy was still associated with wine. A branch or bunch of ivy was often hung on a pole outside a tavern to indicate that the building sold wine or ale. The pole was known as an alepole or an alestake. The bunch of ivy was sometimes known as a bush. From this came the saying. "Good wine needs no bush", meaning that something of merit doesn't need to be advertised because the good news will travel by word of mouth.

Despite its association with wine and the fact that its fruits are the same color as some grapes, English ivy berries are poisonous and mustn't be eaten.

The poet Alexander Pope wearing a crown of ivy; the crown was traditionally associated with a poet of esteem
The poet Alexander Pope wearing a crown of ivy; the crown was traditionally associated with a poet of esteem | Source
English ivy climbing up a tree trunk
English ivy climbing up a tree trunk | Source

The Binding Ability of Ivy and its Symbolism

English ivy travels along the ground and also climbs up vertical supports such as tree trunks, fence posts and walls. If its growth is unchecked it can travel from one plant to another, binding the plants together. This ability sometimes has a symbolic meaning.

Some versions of the medieval legend of Tristan and Isolde, or Iseult, refer to ivy's ability to bind. Tristan was a Cornish knight and Isolde was an Irish princess. Tristan went to Ireland to bring back Isolde as a bride for King Mark. However, Tristan and Isolde fell in love before they reached Cornwall after drinking a love potion.

Beyond this basic plot there are many variations in the story. In some versions, Tristan and Isolde die and are buried in separate graves by King Mark so that even in death they cannot be together. However, an ivy vine (or another vine or a tree) grows out of each grave towards the other one. The ivy vines meet and twine around each other, forming a connection. Even when the king cuts the vines they regrow and reconnect.

Ivy represented peace to the Druids of old, perhaps because of its ability to bind different plants or even different kinds of plants together. Today ivy is often used at weddings, where it symbolizes fidelity.

The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly

Holly standeth in the hall fair to behold,
Ivy stands without the door; she is full sore a cold

Holly and his merry men, they dancen and they sing;
Ivy and her maidens, they weepen and they wring.

Ivy hath a lybe, she caught it with the cold,
So may they all have, that with Ivy hold.

(The full version of this carol is located at the Hymns and Carols of Christmas website. Other carols about holly and ivy are also shown at this site.)

Holly leaves and berries
Holly leaves and berries | Source

English Ivy Symbolism in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, holly represented the masculine element, perhaps because of its prickles and harder leaves, while ivy represented the female element. Both plants were appreciated as winter greenery at a time when many other plants were bare of leaves, especially as holly and ivy had attractive berries.

Edith Rickert (1871-1938) was an English professor at the University of Chicago. Even before she became a professor she was an active investigator in the area of English literature and carols.

Rickert's book "Ancient English Christmas Carols:1400-1700" was published in 1910. In this book she says that many holly and ivy carols existed during the time period that she investigated and that they often involved a debate about the relative merits of men and women.

The first three verses of one of these carols is shown above. The words of the carol describe why holly is superior to ivy, or why males are better than females. They may also indicate that holly was brought indoors as a winter decoration while ivy wasn't. The word "lybe" in the third verse refers to chapped skin or a chilblain. The carol is believed to date from the 1500s but the spelling has been updated to that of the 1800s. The newer version was published in 1868 in a book compiled by William Husk called Songs of the Nativity.

Another carol involving a competition between a male and a female and published in William Husk's book is "Holly and Ivy Made a Great Party". In the last verse of this carol, Ivy appears to have won the debate about who "will have the mastery" as Holly goes down on one knee in front of her. The carol is thought to date from the late 1400s.

Carols such as the ones described above may have been sung in conjunction with the decorating of a house or a church hall for Christmas. A common story on carol websites is that good-natured singing contests were held during the time when the two carols were popular. In these contests, men (holly) sang songs disparaging women (ivy) and women sang songs disparaging men. The contest is a nice idea and may well have happened, but so far I haven't found any reliable evidence to support it.

The Choir of Kings College Cambridge Sings The Holly and the Ivy

The Holly and the Ivy Carol

Pagan customs such as bringing evergreens into the house during the winter solstice continued even after Christianity became dominant in Britain. Many of these customs are still popular during today's Christmas celebrations. However, the old holly and ivy carols have been replaced by the Christian version, known as "The a Holly and the Ivy".

For those not family with the words of today's carol, they can be heard in the video on the right. The lyrics are somewhat puzzling. The first line is "The Holly and the Ivy", yet ivy is mentioned nowhere else in the carol except in the last verse, which is a repeat of the first verse. Holly is given the starring role in the song and ivy is ignored, so it seems strange that ivy is even mentioned.

The explanation that is often given is that the first line in the carol is a remnant of the old custom of linking holly and ivy together. In the rest of the carol ivy isn't needed. The "holly" in the carol refers to Christ and the theme of the carol is his life.

Manning Hall at Brown University
Manning Hall at Brown University | Source
English ivy reproductive stems and flowers; the leaves are oval and pointed instead of lobed
English ivy reproductive stems and flowers; the leaves are oval and pointed instead of lobed | Source

Monarch Butterflies Feeding on English Ivy Nectar

The Ivy League

The "Ivy League" is a group of eight private and prestigious universities in the northeastern United States. The universities were established in the 1600s to 1800s and have a long tradition. The oldest of the group is Harvard, which was founded in 1636. Yale, Pennsylvania, Princeton, Columbia, Brown and Dartmouth were founded in the 1700s and Cornell was founded in 1865.

The term "Ivy League" at first referred to the athletic league to which all eight universities belonged. Now it refers to the universities themselves.

Some of the university buildings are covered with ivy, and in the 1800's the students at some of the institutions planted ivy as an annual tradition. However, these factors aren't believed to be directly responsible for the term "Ivy League". The explanation that is considered to be most likely for the origin of the term is its mention by a newspaper reporter named Caswell Adams.

In the early 1930s a writer at the New York Tribune named Stanley Woodward referred to the northeastern universities as "ivy colleges". This was perhaps the start of the tradition of using the word ivy in the group name for the universities.

Caswell Adams also worked at the New York Tribune. In 1937 Adams was assigned to write a report of a football game between two universities belonging to today's Ivy League. This assignment reportedly prevented him from covering a game involving his alma mater - Fordham University - which was doing very well in football at that time. Apparently, Adams complained about having to cover a game between either two "ivy covered" or two "ivy league" universities. When the report appeared in the newspaper it referred to the universities as Ivy League institutions.

English ivy growing on a brick wall
English ivy growing on a brick wall | Source

English Ivy Today

English ivy is an interesting and tenacious plant that can be a useful part of its environment or an annoying interloper. Some people value ivy as an ornamental plant or a part of nature. Others dislike the plant for its rapid growth and its ability to cover other plants and block sunlight. Whether we are an ivy supporter or a detractor, however, the plant is hard to ignore. Just as in the past, English ivy can make its presence felt.

© 2014 Linda Crampton

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Comments 54 comments

FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

I enjoyed reading the diverse traditions and stories connected with ivy, from the history of the Ivy League to ivy's connection with wine. Very interesting and nicely researched!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much, Flourish. I appreciate your visit!


Suhail and my dog profile image

Suhail and my dog 2 years ago from Mississauga, ON

Facade of my home has English Ivy all over it starting from late spring and lasts till mid fall. In early fall the leaves start turning brilliant red drawing oohs and aahs from every passer by. My wife and I had bought it for $10 back in 2009 and have gifted many planters to our friends asking for it after buying from the same outlet.

It is a beautiful creeper and with symbolism, tradition and mythology that you pointed out behind it, I am sure my family will start respecting it even more.

Thanks for sharing the details.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Suhail. Thank you for your kind comment. I appreciate it very much. Your ivy sounds absolutely beautiful! I don't think it can be English ivy if it turns red in the fall, though, since English ivy stays green all year long. I wonder if your plant is Boston ivy? This plant has lobed leaves, grows on walls, has blue berries and turns a beautiful red color in the autumn. It's a lovely plant.


CarolynEmerick profile image

CarolynEmerick 2 years ago

Alicia I loved this hub! I admin on some mythology pages and I will give it a share! Hey, if you enjoy writing about history myth and legend of the British Isles, I write and assist the editor for Celtic Guide magazine and we are always recruiting writers. It's a free magazine so it doesn't pay, but writers get a free ad and a plug for your website or hubpages profile or whatever you want. If you are interested, I moderate the FB page, it's www.facebook.com/celticguide, if you'd like to talk about contributing please get in touch with me there :-)


Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 2 years ago from southern USA

Fascinating hub, Alicia! I loved learning so much here on the symbolism and traditions as to the Ivy plant and the Holly as well ... very interesting indeed.

Hope you have a lovely rest of the weekend.

Up and more and away

Blessings always


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you so much for the comment and the share, Carolyn! I am very interested in British history and mythology. I was born in Britain and grew up there. I love Canada, but a part of me is still British! I'll visit the Facebook page that you mention.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the comment and the votes, Faith! I visited the HubPages forum just now and read about the Internet trouble that you're having. Thank you so much for making the effort to read this hub! I hope you enjoy the rest of the weekend and that your access to the Internet is restored soon. Blessings to you.


Suhail and my dog profile image

Suhail and my dog 2 years ago from Mississauga, ON

Yes Linda it could be Boston Ivy or Virginia Creeper, but it doesn't have any berries and flowers.

I bought it from Home Depot where it was marked as English Ivy.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

It sounds like a lovely plant, Suhail, whatever it is! The outside of your home must look beautiful.


billybuc profile image

billybuc 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

You always share information I have never known. I don't know how you do that because I do have some education, but you do it every single time. Thank you for continuing my education.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the visit and for such a kind comment, Bill! I appreciate it very much.


cairennrhys 2 years ago

Excellent article. Informative and well researched. It really caught my eye and educated me on the background of this beautiful plant. I am new here and this was the first article I read! Thank you!


Maren Morgan M-T profile image

Maren Morgan M-T 2 years ago from Pennsylvania

Lovely, lovely topic and article. So, ivy is in the Gingko family. I am surprised.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you so much, cairennrhys! I appreciate your visit. Welcome to HubPages!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the kind comment, Maren Morgan! English ivy and ginkgo are both very interesting plants, but they actually belong to different biological families. English ivy belongs to the ginseng family, or the Araliaceae, and ginkgo belongs to the Ginkgoaceae family.


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 2 years ago from Essex, UK

Very informative article Linda about all aspects of this very distinctive plant which offers a useful function in many gardens and as a decorative natural cover for walls. Particularly for me it was interesting to learn of the possible origins of the 'Ivy League' Universities - a term I have often wondered about.

Re 'The Holly and the Ivy', I learned about this for a hub about Christmas carols I once wrote, and I concur with the view expressed here. It seems the link between holly and ivy was just too strong for the ivy to be left out of this famous carol, even though the holly was to be the main subject of the carol.

Well written, and a good selection of images too. Voted up. Alun


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you, Alun. I appreciate your comment and the vote. Investigating the symbolic meanings of ivy - and other plants - is a very interesting activity!


VioletteRose profile image

VioletteRose 2 years ago from Chicago

Great information about the English Ivy, thanks so much for sharing :) I love learning about these!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much, VioletteRose! Ivy is an interesting plant.


bdegiulio profile image

bdegiulio 2 years ago from Massachusetts

Hi Linda. Fascinating hub, especially the connection to Dionysus and the Ivy League. Who knew? Not me! You always do such a thorough and complete job, very well done. Thank you for the education. Voted up, shared, etc... Have a great week.


rebeccamealey profile image

rebeccamealey 2 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

I LOVE English Ivy, my neighbor hates it, so I get all the ivy I want for centerpieces. I like using it, and it is a pretty plant. Thanks for standing up for English ivy!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you so much, Bill! I appreciate your kind comment, the vote and the share. I hope you have a great week, too!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Rebecca. I love English ivy too, although I must admit it's often hard to keep under control where I live. It's great that you have a neighbor who gives you her ivy! Like you, I think that it's a pretty plant.


gardener den profile image

gardener den 2 years ago from Southwestern, Pennsylvania

Hi AliciaC

This is Gardener Den I love your hub on growing English Ivy and the history of English Ivy. Keep up the great work and keep on writing great hubs that I will read. Gardener Den


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the lovely comment, Gardener Den!


truthfornow profile image

truthfornow 2 years ago from New Orleans, LA

I liked reading about the symbolism because I had no idea. I am actually interested in reading more on the carols as it seems like a very enriched history. I had never thought about the term Ivy League that much either - but it makes sense.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, truthfornow. Thanks for the visit. I find carol history very interesting, too! It's fun to learn more about the topic.


Vellur profile image

Vellur 2 years ago from Dubai

Great hub, about the English Ivy. The stories connected with this plant is very interesting. Enjoyed reading. Voted up interesting and informative.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 2 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

Wow Alicia, thanks for all the great information on the legends and mythology of ivy. I think we have forgotten much of the power of this symbolism and that our forebears lived in a world where they saw meaning and symbols throughout the natural world and their lived


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Vellur. Thank you for the comment and the votes!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the comment, Cynthia. I appreciate it! Yes, symbolism can sometimes be very meaningful. It can be interesting, too!


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 2 years ago from Houston, Texas

Amazing in depth article about ivy and references to it from different sources including carols, wine, the ivy league schools, etc. It certainly thrives in our Houston climate outdoors! Up votes and pinning to my plants board.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment, the vote and the pin, Peggy! It's interesting to hear how widespread ivy is. It's certainly a successful plant.


DDE profile image

DDE 2 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

Incredible the way you presented this hub. Informative, interesting and so much more I have learned about the English Ivy. Voted up.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the visit, the lovely comment and the vote, Devika!


marieryan profile image

marieryan 2 years ago from Andalusia, Spain

Interesting...I loved the explanation of "A good wine needs no bush"-

I am an ivy supporter. I have a horrible fence at the back of my yard, made up of old, dead bushes. My sister had the brainwave to start training an ivy plant along it last year. Now the dead bushes are covered in beautiful green ivy.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, marieryan. That sounds like a very good use for ivy! The plant can look very attractive on a fence. Thanks for the visit.


Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

Fantastic hub. I love the way you didn't burden the reader with too many details on this plant's natural history, which we can get anywhere, but focused instead on the historical and mythological traditions of the plant. Well done!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much, Mel! I appreciate your visit and the kind comment.


teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 2 years ago

I love the way ivy look framing a home or garden fence. I always wondered if the berries were poinsonous and now I know. THank you fo sharing.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Dianna. Thanks for the visit. I love the appearance of ivy, too, as long as its growth is controlled. It's a beautiful plant.


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 2 years ago from Stillwater, OK

I enjoyed the historical info on the holly and the ivy, and I am one that likes English ivy.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Deb. Thanks for the comment. I appreciate your support.


Colin323 2 years ago

Very interesting article. There used to be some medicinal purposes for ivy in England too at one time. A cap of ivy was used to try to cure diseases of the scalp in the young, and a poultice of ivy was often made up to apply to corns! The leaves were also used to heal burns and alleviate eczema. In Scotland, young girls used to take a leaf from the Irish ivy and place it on their hearts saying:

"Ivy, Ivy, I love you

In my bosom I put you

The first young man who speaks to me

Will my future husband be".

A bit risky, I would have thought! It ties in though, with what you told us about the masculine associations with ivy.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the very informative comment, Colin323! Ivy has certainly had an interesting history.


Cyndi10 profile image

Cyndi10 2 years ago from Georgia

I enjoyed reading about English ivy, which seems to like my yard. It's fine with me because I like the plant. I'm glad to know it's not a parasite as is often believed, because it is attached to a few of my trees. I love to see it climb walls of brick homes. Thanks for the information.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the visit and the comment, Cyndi10.


Pollyanna Jones profile image

Pollyanna Jones 2 years ago from United Kingdom

Great article! I really enjoyed the read; Ivy is one of my favourite plants. Upvoted and shared :-)


sujaya venkatesh profile image

sujaya venkatesh 2 years ago

valuable info about ivy


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment, the vote and the share, Pollyanna!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you, sujaya venkatesh. I appreciate your visit.


Eliza Granville 7 weeks ago

re holly & ivy contests - you might like to look at Robert Graves on this subject (The White Goddess, Faber & Faber, Chapter 10, The tree Alphabet, end of section ' G for Gort')


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 7 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for sharing the information, Eliza.

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