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.
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
- 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
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.
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).
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,
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