All About Ivy: The Pros and Cons of a Popular Garden Plant

All About Ivy: The Pros and Cons of a Popular Garden Plant

By Michael Jenkins

Picture an old building. Go head, let your imagination wander. You may see a number of things—Classical or Neo-Classical architecture, a timeless old manor house, a castle, or a country cottage. Whatever you’re picturing in your mind, we’d be willing to bet most of you are imagining a building covered in ivy. A classic sign of age and authority, ivy is a longstanding choice for ground cover, trellis cover, or other ornamental roles. In gardening and landscaping circles, there’s a lot of discussion about ivy—its role as a decorative plant, potential damage it may cause to buildings, and its presence as an invasive species in many places. The pros and cons of Ivy are a tricky subject, but we’ll try to provide a starting point so that you can make better decisions about the plants in your garden. Let’s dig in!

What is Ivy?

While there are dozens of plants referred to as “ivy”, for purpose of this blog we’ll be focusing on English Ivy (Hedera helix), which is probably the most popular in landscapes and gardens worldwide. A native of Europe and western Asia, ivy has been cultivated as a landscape or decorative plant since ancient times. Its dense growth pattern and ability to climb have made it a longstanding popular choice for covering the sides fo buildings. In this role it offers the benefit of blocking the sun from reaching the walls of the building and thus helping the inside of the structure stay cooler. This practice continues in parts of Europe to this day.

Ivy is mildly toxic to human and pets—something that should be considered when planting ivy in the garden. However, it has also long been used as a medicinal plant for treating coughs and bronchitis. Extracts made from the ivy plant are still used in modern cough medicine to this day.

The Pros and Cons of Ivy

Like all plants, English Ivy is neither good nor bad; it’s just a living organism that exists and fills its niche in the world. As a garden plant, there are a number of strengths that English Ivy brings to the right garden space. It’s a relatively fast growing plant, with a relatively wide tolerance for different climates and a strong resistance to drought. It can be used in a number of ways as an ornamental or landscaping plant: ground cover, on a trellis or fence, or growing on a wall. English Ivy is widely available in garden stores, easy to plant and care for, and offers a quick and easy solution for many decorative gardening or landscaping needs. Due to its dense leafy growth, ivy also provides habitat for birds, insects, and other wildlife.

However, the positive traits that make ivy such a popular garden plant may also cause problems in other areas. Ivy’s ability to spread rapidly and its numerous fruits mean that the plant may quickly take over the space allotted and then spread to other areas where it is less desirable. Birds and other wildlife spread ivy seeds rapidly, which has lead to problems with ivy as an invasive in many parts of the world including the US, Australia, New Zealand, and coastal North Africa. While ivy’s ability for vertical growth adds to its beauty, its vines can quickly overwhelm and even kill trees if left unchecked. Likewise, ivy grown on a house can lead to damage as the tendrils work their way into cracks and crevices, forcing them apart and making such defects larger.

Should You Plant Ivy in Your Garden?

So with that discussion of the pros and cons of ivy behind us, let’s address the action question—should you plant ivy in your garden? As is so often the case, the answer is “maybe”. Ivy is not a bad plant, and it may be the right choice for your garden or your landscaping. However, ivy requires careful control and pruning/trimming to prevent many of the problems associated with it. In sensitive environments or where restricted by law, it may be best to avoid ivy in order to avoid introducing an invasive plant to the ecosystem.  As always, asking at your local garden store, garden club, and county extension can get you the right advice for your location and circumstances. We hope this blog has forearmed you with good information about the pros and cons of ivy so you can make the right decision for you.

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