Just when everything else is shutting down for the season, ivy is in flower along our hedgerows, in woods, on old buildings, in all sorts of places. A woody climber native to Europe, ivy is an important food-source for wildlife.
It can thrive in shady places, is a good groundcover and handy for hiding ugly garden features like oil tanks, old sheds, and tree stumps. Many cultivated varieties are available, so ivy is a popular garden plant, used of course also in floral art and winter decorations especially at Christmas.
But ivy is also an important source of food and shelter for wildlife during autumn and winter. Just now, late insects are buzzing around its flowers, which are pollinated by moths and late wasps. Later the black berries will find a use. Blackbirds love them. Ivy berries that last through into spring will also be a useful early food source for young birds. And as an evergreen, ivy provides shelter for a wide variety of over-wintering creatures. Ivy is also browsed by cattle.
Though often thought of as a parasite, ivy is not in fact parasitic, and will not normally damage a sound building or wall, nor is it generally a threat to healthy trees. Regular trimming can help a lot though, as a good lush growth of ivy in winter, especially if covered by snow, can be quite a weight to bear, particularly where trees are already getting past their best.
Our native species of ivy, Hedera helix, is native to western and central Europe from southern Scandinavia southwards. Ivy has been introduced to many other parts of the world, and is often regarded there (e.g., the USA) as an invasive and unwanted species.
Ivy berries have been used as a source of dye, and in ancient Rome ivy wreathes were used to crown winners of poetry contests. In medieval times ivy on a pole was used as an alepole - the sign of a place that sold alcoholic drinks.
Bees make good use of ivy flowers, at a time when there are few other sources of nectar. One new arrival in the UK is the ivy bee, a fairly large solitary bee. This is rather like a honey bee in shape, but with stronger stripes of yellow or orange on the abdomen and a furry orange thorax. This bee flies through a five or six week period of the autumn, and so far seems to have had little impact on existing bee species. It was first noted in the UK in 2001 and had reached this part of the country by about 2013.