English ivy

English ivy

English ivy is a widely planted evergreen vine, introduced as an ornamental into North America from Eurasia during colonial times. As a garden escapee, this vine quickly spreads into neighboring forests and is especially invasive in coastal regions from Oregon to British Columbia. It has two distinctive growth stages. "Juvenile" plants grow along the ground and "arborescent" or treelike forms are erect shrubs. It is this second form that causes significant environmental damage. As an arborescent, English ivy can completely cover walls, buildings, roofs, and trees; this added weight often causes trees to topple when exposed to strong winds. On the ground, English ivy, because of its dense growth and abundant leaves, prevents light from reaching important native plants. This amazing vine can reach heights of 50 meters and depths of 1 meter above ground. Despite its invasiveness, English ivy is a much sought after ornamental plant, treasured for its attractive shapes, colours and habits. In fact, there are many advocates of this vine that are quick to point out its benefits. These include providing shelter for bats, birds, and invertebrates along with nectar for insects. Some even claim that ivy only pulls down trees if they are already dying. However, it is indisputable that ivy inhibits the growth and regeneration of native wildflowers, shrubs and trees through shading, smothering, and through associated harmful pathogens (bacterial leaf scorch Xylella fastidiosa). This invasive plant is widespread in southwestern B.C. and should be recognized and removed on sight. Controlling English ivy requires persistent efforts to make significant headway.

Size: When grown as a groundcover, English ivy spreads wherever it’s allowed, and forms a dense mat 6 to 8 inches tall. As a climbing vine, English ivy uses its root-like holdfasts to ascend up to 80 feet, often completely covering walls.

Foliage: English ivies have two distinct kinds of foliage. “Juvenile” leaves are typical in most plants, which are usually in their creeping or early climbing stages. These tough, leathery, evergreen leaves have 3 to 9 lobes and are up to 6 inches long, depending on the variety. They are usually dark green, but some varieties have leaves that are light green, gray-green, or variegated yellow, white or silver. Later, “adult” leaves develop as the plant achieves some height and stability. Adult foliage usually is not lobed. Leaves and stems are coated with fine, fuzzy hairs. In rare cases, these hairs or the plant’s sap may cause a rash when the plants are handled.

Flowers: Ivy plants grown, as groundcover almost never flowers or fruit. Five-petaled greenish-white flowers appear in inconspicuous nodding clusters only on mature plants in September or October. Small black berries in mild climates follow these the following spring. The berries occasionally become a nuisance if they seed into neighboring plantings. They are also reputed to be toxic.

Growing Conditions

Full sunlight or middling shade is good for this plant. It will take surprisingly small amounts of sunlight and live, although it will slow down its growth in very low light levels. If nothing else will make it in this dark corner, try English Ivy.

Well-drained but fertile soil allows it to grow well. This plant is a native understory plant so think woodland and woodland edging plant with the kind of good soil there.

While it will survive being flooded in the spring, it doesn't like winter wet or standing water in a garden setting.

It will grow in clay soils but prefers a better drained soil.

This plant clings to buildings (and almost any surface) with "suckers" that attach themselves and support the weight of the plant. It does not require a trellis but will use one (or anything vertical for that matter) to climb.


English Ivy is marginally hardy as a climbing vine into USDA zone 5. The variety 'Baltica' is hardy there in most years although it will be burned off in a cold year. I've had 'Baltica' survive a year or two in USDA zone 4 but as soon as it pokes its head up through the snow - or the snow melts down and we have a deep freeze, this plant is burned to the ground or killed.

Other varieties are more tender.

As indicated above, in warmer areas or areas where winter is cool and damp, this plant will think it is in hog-heaven and has the potential to become a serious weed.

Home Garden Propagation
By cuttings in the home garden. Easy - take some tender tip cuttings and put them in a glass of water. Wait a month until roots emerge and then plant.

Layering - putting a tendril on the ground and covering the node with soil will also work. This is how it spreads as a ground cover.

Removing Old Plants
Removing an established plant is a bit of a chore. The first step is to kill off the root. Cut the main stems at the root. This will kill the existing top.

The problem of course is that this root is going to produce a hundred new shoots for every one you cut. You have to either continue to cut these off regularly and starve the root out, or, you have to dig out the root. I note that selective use of full-strength Roundup - painted on the freshly cut surface will be absorbed by the root and will kill the root.

You do have to either kill or totally remove this root as the smaller roots can indeed throw new shoots all by themselves. This is a tough plant to eradicate manually but it can be done.

Removing the old suckers from the walls is easier when the top growth is fully dead. They can be pulled away and then a power washer will remove most of the older suckers. You may have to scrub off some of the more persistent ones.

Will this damage your house? Frankly, it depends on how good the mortar or siding condition is and is beyond the ability of this article to give you a good answer. Siding or mortar that is in good shape will not be bothered other than cosmetically. Poor conditions might see some damage. If there is a trick, it is to allow the top growth to fully die and become brittle before trying to remove it. Experiment with smaller areas before you really get serious about pulling off the plant.

Control Measures

As English ivy is a serious threat to tree blow-over during storms, it is important to take measures to kill both arborescent forms as well as groundcover vines. Currently, there are several techniques to control English ivy including non chemical and chemical methods. Removing the tree form of English ivy is certainly more difficult than removing it as a groundcover as vines can grow up to 50 meters high! However, starving the vine results in withering and die off in time. To date, there are no biological controls agents used to control this invasive plant.

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