Sunday, 25 February 2018

Ivy to the rescue

In his epic poem, The Waste Land, which I last read some fifty years ago, T.S.Eliot wrote:

                                            April is the cruellest month, breeding
                                            Lilacs out of the dead land...

But I have to say, Eliot notwithstanding, February can be a bit of a bugger too.
Bitterly cold weather is moving in from eastern Europe, putting on hold those signs of spring for which we wait so eagerly. It is particularly galling, given that the eastern part of the U.S.A. is enjoying unseasonably warm weather.
Beekeepers must be feeling anxious: this time last year honey bees were busy nectaring at snowdrops but currently they will still be in the form of a cluster in the hive. They will move to feed on reserves of honey laid down last year, once the temperature has risen above 40-45 degrees F, but it seems that in these very cold conditions the bees will survive only on the alternative reserve - the fat in their own bodies - and those reserves won't last for ever. Even when the temperature rises this may not prevent starvation as a sustained spell of warmer weather is needed to get the bees out actively foraging for pollen and nectar.
A good proportion of the honey stored from last year is likely to have been from ivy blossom. Although the honey thus produced is not to the taste of people and according to John Wright  '(its) taste is of sugar syrup laced with disinfectant' (Ref 1) bees are clearly happy with it. I was reminded of this when I noticed plump clusters of ivy berries on plants in Byfield earlier today. These berries ripen and thus become available for birds, mice and so on just when other food sources have become exhausted.
Ivy, Hedera helix, often features in my blogs, partly I suppose because it is so commonplace but also because the genus Hedera is our only native representative of the rather large tropical and sub-tropical family, Araliaceae. 
Plump, ripe ivy berries. Byfield Pocket Park. 25 February, 2018
Ivy is a curious plant, often ignored as we go about our daily rounds, but down the centuries it has been important not only in ritual but also put to use in practical household tasks. John Clare spoke of (hastening) 'to the woods to get ivy branches with their chocolat (sic) berries used to color with whiting and the bluebag, sticking the branches behind the pictures on the walls'.
In his fascinating book, Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey quotes a Scottish woman who recalled: 'When my mother was born in 1885 at Inskip, Ayrshire, her father was a policeman. I was told that my grandmother used to boil up ivy leaves as a colour restorer when his uniform looked shabby'. (Ref 2)
According to  Madeline Harley (Ref 3) the leaves and berries of ivy were used to produce dyes in shades of yellow, pink, green and brown.
Is it poisonous? Here we get confliction information. In the HMSO publication 'Poisonous Plants and Fungi' (Ref 4) we read: 'Poisoning in animals can be ... serious as large quantities of leaves and berries are sometimes eaten. Ivy poisoning has occurred in sheep, cattle, deer and dogs (and) symptoms include vomiting, diarrhoea ...and paralysis.'  And yet according to a Shropshire farmer's wife, 'My husband tells me that sick animals suffering from poisoning, e.g. through eating yew or ragwort, will eat ivy when they refuse all else...(but)... livestock when healthy will only eat ivy when no other forage is available'. (Ref 2) Richard Mabey goes on to quote other farmers who used ivy as either food or medicine.
As for ritual, ivy has so many customs and beliefs associated with it that a whole book would be required to give a full account of them.
A curious plant indeed!


1. Wright, J.(2016) A Natural History of the Hedgerow  Profile Books, London
2. Mabey, R. (1997) Flora Britannica  Chatto and Windus, London
3. Harley, M (2016) Wonderful Weeds  Papadakis Books
4. Cooper, M.R. and Johnson, A.W. (1988) Poisonous Plants and Fungi. H.M.S.O., London



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