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David Watson Hood, visual artist.
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Ivy: Hedera helix L. Bentwood, Bindwood, Eidheann, Eidheantach, Ivery, Ivy.


ivy flowerIn the pagan symbolism that we rediscover every Christmas time Ivy represents the female principle as Holly does the male. This association with female fecundity and also one with fidelity makes it a plant that has often been used in wedding regalia. It is also the plant of Dionysus, worn in his wreath with vine leaves (it was once regarded as an antidote to alcoholic intoxication). The Dionysian association also made it the old tavern sign, the bush that good wine is supposed not to need.

I have a big hedge of old plants in front of my house and I am often struck by how few of the leaves have the shape we think of as ivy shaped. The number of small songbirds it provides with nest sites and some winter food is truly phenomenal.

THE IVY
I will pluck the tree-entwining ivy,
As Mary plucked with her one hand,
As the King of life has ordained,
To put milk in udder and gland,
With speckled fair female calves,
As was spoken in the prophecy,
On this foundation for a year and a day,
Through the bosom of the God of life, and of all the powers.
- from Alexander Carmichael's Carmina Gadelica.

Non-medical uses of ivy
The plant is said to be poisonous in large doses although the leaves are eaten with impunity by various mammals without any noticeable harmful affects. The leaves and fruits contain the saponic glycoside hederagenin which, if ingested, can cause breathing difficulties and coma. The sap can cause dermatitis with blistering and inflammation. This is apparently due to the presence of polyacetylene compounds.
A yellow and a brown dye are obtained from the twigs. A decoction of the leaves is used to restore black fabrics and also as a hair rinse to darken the hair. The berries of ivy produce a greyish-green dye. According to modern dyers, ivy leaves produce a creamy yellow dye (with alum as a mordant). If the leaves are boiled with soda they are a soap substitute for washing clothes etc. Plants have been grown indoors in pots in order to help remove toxins from the atmosphere. It is especially good at removing chemical vapours, especially formaldehyde. The plants will probably benefit from being placed outdoors during the summer. The old root end heart wood is hard and can be used as a substitute for Box, Buxus sempervirens, in engraving etc if a large enough piece is obtainable, the softer porous young wood has been used for whetting the knives of leather dressers.
Ivy was plaited with rowan and honeysuckle as a protective wreath. These wreaths were particularly used for keeping milk and butter safe from witchcraft.

Medicinal uses of ivy
Antibacterial, Antiseptic, Antispasmodic, Astringent, Cathartic; Diaphoretic, Emetic, Emmenagogue, Parasiticide, Skin, Stimulant, Vasoconstrictor, Vasodilator, Vermifuge.
Definitons of medical actions

Poisonous in large doses, Ivy is a bitter aromatic herb with a nauseating taste. It is often used in folk herbal remedies, especially in the treatment of rheumatism and as an external application to skin eruptions, swollen tissue, painful joints, burns and suppurating cuts. Recent research has shown that the leaves contain the compound 'emetine', which is an amoebicidal alkaloid, and also triterpene saponins, which are effective against liver flukes, molluscs, internal parasites and fungal infections. The leaves are antibacterial, antirheumatic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, astringent, cathartic, diaphoretic, emetic, emmenagogue, stimulant, sudorific, vasoconstrictor, vasodilator and vermifuge. The plant is used internally in the treatment of gout, rheumatic pain, whooping cough, bronchitis and as a parasiticide. Some caution is advised if it is being used internally since the plant is mildly toxic. Excessive doses destroy red blood cells and cause irritability, diarrhoea and vomiting. This plant should only be used under the supervision of a qualified practitioner. An infusion of the twigs in oil is recommended for the treatment of sunburn. The leaves are harvested in spring and early summer, they are used fresh and can also be dried.

Historic: It was widely used as a diuretic, astringent and stimulant. It was used internally for indigestion, coughs, nervous headaches, bruising, jaundice, sciatica, gout, sore throats and gangrene. Applied topically in the form of an ointment it was used for burns and it was made into a tea for bathing irritated or infected eyes. a cap sewn from ivy leaves was used to treat cradle cap in infants. (Grieve, Maud, a Modern Herbal, first published 1931, Jonathon Cape, London, Beith, Mary, Healing Threads, Polygon, Edinburgh, 1995, Rorie, David, Folk Tradition and Folk Medicine in Scotland, Canongate, Edinburgh 1994).

Sources:
Carmichael, A. (1997 reprint). Carmina Gadelica: Hymns & incantations collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the Last century. Floris Books, Edinburgh.
Plants For A Future, www.pfaf.org/index.html,

Flora Celtica, www.floraceltica.com/, Flora Celtica is an international project based at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, documenting and promoting the knowledge and sustainable use of native plants in the Celtic countries and regions of Europe.

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