I’m not sure I can subscribe to the ancient concept that wearing a wreath of ivy leaves around my head would stop me getting drunk but the leaves are certainly amazing and incredibly diverse in shape, form and colour. Juvenile leaves have between 3 and 5 lobes, while mature leaves have no lobes and can be shaped both like ovals and hearts.
And then there are the flowers, in bloom from September through to November and a source of food for more than 50 insect species, and the subsequent berries, ripe from November to January – or, until the berry-loving winter thrushes, finches, woodpigeons and other hungry birds gobble them all up. What an incredible plant ivy is!
I heard them before I saw them.
I’d been smelling the ivy flowers all day, as I walked one of my local circuits, though Cosmeston along to Lavernock and back to Penarth along the coastal path. But I hadn’t noticed any open flowers until I heard the loud buzzing coming from the ivy ahead of me on the path. It was alive with various species of bee and fly and hoverfly. And then I spotted what I was looking for – the ginger fluff and black-and-yellow-stripes of Ivy bees (Colletes hederae), my first for 2019.
This little Harlequin ladybird was just one of the many insects – flies and hoverflies, honey bees, bumblebees and wasps, and a Red Admiral butterfly – that were enjoying the nectar and pollen to be found on these ivy flowers, an important source of food for so many insects in the autumn months.
Though its roots can creep between gaps in stonework causing severe damage to ancient ruins, stone walls, grave monuments and the like, ivy (Hedera helix, also known as English ivy, common ivy or just plain ivy) is of great importance to wildlife. Not only does it provide shelter and nesting places for insects, birds, bats and other beasties, it is also an important food source.
Ivy’s flowering period begins in August and continues right through to November, sometimes later, and the flowers produce plentiful quantities of nectar and pollen. Over 70 species of nectar-loving insects feast on the flowers, including wasps and bumblebees, Red admiral, Small tortoiseshell and Peacock butterflies.
Once the berries begin to ripen, they turn a deep purple-black colour, and provide an important winter source of food when most other berries are finished. At this time, the ivy becomes a favourite snacking place for lots of berry-eating birds, blackbirds and thrushes in particular, but also starlings and jays, finches and wood pigeons.