Everything You Need to Know About English Ivy

How can a problem-solver cause so many problems? Plant English ivy, and you’ll find out.

Native to Europe, English ivy (Hedera helix) is also a popular, evergreen ground cover for the shade. The main reasons are that it has very attractive foliage, it spreads and fills faster than other ground covers, and it likes shade. Typically, it sports dark-green leaves with three to five lobes, but many variations exist. Some selections feature variegated foliage with leaves edged in white or yellow. Other forms flaunt heart-shaped, deeply cut, rounded, or diminutive leaves, as any member of the American Ivy Society will be happy to show you.

How English Ivy Grows

On an open surface, all forms spread along the ground, rooting as they go to form a solid mat about 4 to 8 inches high. If they did only that, there would be a lot less hate. However, aided by tenacious aerial rootlets, they climb any and every object they encounter—house, boulder, chain-link fence, wall, abandoned school bus, hobo, and—worst of all—tree. Ivy has no problem climbing to the top of a 100-foot tree and completely enshrouding the trunk and main limbs. It can shade out so many leaves that the tree dies due to lack of photosynthesis. Here’s what happens (pictured below) when English ivy invades the woods.

Steve Bender

English Ivy Has Two Distinct Life Stages

Ivy is interesting because it exhibits two distinct life stages. In the juvenile stage, it’s a clinging, vegetative vine. In the adult stage, it’s a sedentary shrub with oval, non-lobed leaves. You’d think the adult form would be entirely safe to plant and ignore, but you’d be wrong. Adult plants flower and produce blue-black berries filled with seeds. Birds eat the berries, poop them out, and seedlings sprout. The seedlings are juveniles that spread and climb.

English Ivy Helps Erosion, But It Can Spread Quickly

The Jekyll and Hyde nature of ivy presents serious conflicts. For example, a number of readers have asked what’s the quickest, plant-based way to stop a bare, shaded slope from eroding. The answer? Plant English ivy. But if these readers don’t keep the ivy from climbing or spreading beyond their property, they could be setting loose a plague like you see above. English ivy is considered an invasive plant in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, California, and many other places. Oregon banned its sale and planting.

How to Remove English Ivy

How do you get rid of ivy you don’t want? Well, if you only have a little, pull it up roots and all, bag it, and throw it out with the trash. If you have a lot, though, “Houston, we have a problem.” Cut tree-climbing vines at the base of the tree. The vines above will die and shower the yard with dead leaves for months, but the tree will thank you. Eradicating ivy on the ground means carefully timed applications of either Roundup or Brush Killer. Spraying in the summer or fall does no good because a waxy coating on the leaves prevents absorption. You must spray in the spring when the new leaves are bright green and lack the wax.

Other Ground Cover Options for Shade

If the downside of planting English ivy in your garden is too steep, there are other ground cover options for shade. Say grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) looks like grass without the upkeep, retains its color all-year round, and forms blankets of green, grass-like foliage 6-to-8-inches tall. Carpet bugleweed (Ajuga reptans)—evergreen in most of the South—forms a fast-spreading carpet about 6 inches tall with green, purple, or variegated leaves. Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis) has glossy, deep-green foliage that stays green year-round, and stands 8 to 12 inches tall.

Bottom-line: Plant ivy only as a last resort, and if you can keep it in check. Don’t let a problem-solver become a catastrophe.