English Ivy Plant Profile

english ivy wrapped around a tree

The Spruce / Cara Cormack 

To the ancient Greeks and Romans, glossy-leafed, dark green ivy was sacred to the god Dionysus (Bacchus in Rome). The pagan druids reflected on ivy in the Christmas carol, "The Holly and the Ivy," where the plant represents female divinity. This plant clearly had an impact on ancient cultures but did not stop there. The evergreen vines of this invasive species have vastly covered Europe.

English ivy plants (Hedera helix) are evergreen perennials. They are also classified as woody vines. English ivy plants can act as ground covers, spreading horizontally and reaching 8 inches in height. But they are also climbers, due to their aerial rootlets, which allow them to climb to heights of 80 feet. They will eventually bear insignificant greenish flowers but are grown primarily for their evergreen leaves. In this regard, they can be classified as foliage plants.

Botanical Name Hedera helix
Common Name English ivy, common ivy, European ivy
Plant Type Perennial, evergreen climbing vine
Mature Size 6 to 8 inches tall and 15 feet wide (as a ground cover)
Sun Exposure Part shade to full shade
Soil Type Fertile and moist
Soil pH Neutral to slightly alkaline
Bloom Time Fall
Flower Color Greenish-white, greenish-yellow
Hardiness Zones 4 to 9
Native Area Europe, Scandinavia, Russia
closeup of an english ivy leaf
The Spruce / Cara Cormack  
closeup of english ivy
The Spruce / Cara Cormack 
ivy growing on a wall
The Spruce / Cara Cormack 
english ivy growing on a tree trunk
The Spruce / Cara Cormack  

How to Grow English Ivy

The fact that English ivy plants spread quickly means that they could be useful as ground covers for filling in hard-to-plant spots in your landscaping. Their aggressive nature suggests that they could be effective allies against erosion on hillsides. At home indoors or out, English ivy does well planted in containers or baskets where its trailing vines can hang down. Ivy will need protection from winter winds as well as the hot summer sun, so plant appropriately.

Note: English ivy is widely known to be capable of causing damage to trees and brickwork. It is also considered invasive in many areas, including the Pacific Northwest, California, several southeastern states, and parts of the Midwest. As is often the case, aggressive growth is a double-edged sword, allowing you to cover bare spots quickly but at the price of invasiveness.

Light

English ivy plants grow well in part shade to full shade. The ability to grow in shade has made English ivy a traditional ground cover for planting under trees, where most grasses may not grow well. Vigorous, with a dense growth habit, this ground cover can be effective where the object is to crowd out weeds.

Soil

Grow this evergreen vine in well-drained soil. Although it will grow in poor soils and soils of a wide range of pH levels, it does best in average loams.

Water

When watering your ivy, always check the soil before adding water. Ivies prefer to be kept slightly on the dry side, so let the soil dry out some (dry to the touch on top) before you water your ivy plant again. Also, make sure that your plant has excellent drainage. Ivy should not be kept in standing water or overly wet soil.

Temperature and Humidity

English Ivy plants can grow in temperatures between 45 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Their leaves will stay dark green when grown in consistent temperatures and medium to high humidity.

Fertilizer

Feed English ivy every two weeks during the spring and summer season with half the recommended dose of basic houseplant food. Fertilize monthly in the fall and winter. Do not use fertilizer or plant food if the plant is in a stressful situation: very hot, very cold, or very dry soil, or when leaf production has stopped.

Potting and Repotting

Some gardeners grow these plants in hanging baskets, letting them cascade over the sides. Indeed, considering their invasive quality, this is a very sensible way to grow the vines for their beauty without having to worry that they will spread out of control.

Repot small ivy plants every year into fresh potting soil, or every other year for larger plants. Old, tired plants can be refreshed and planted back into their same containers.

Propagating

Ivies propagate readily from stem cuttings. As trailing plants, ivies benefit from trimming—you can use the trimmings to propagate your plants. Take cuttings 4 to 5 inches long and place them in water until a good network of root hairs has developed, then plant them in potting soil. 

Toxicity of English Ivy

English ivy vines are poisonous plants for humans, dogs, cats, and livestock. All parts of the plant are toxic. Severe skin irritation can result from contact with the plant cell sap. Ingesting the leaves can cause excessive drooling, vomiting, and diarrhea as well as delirium, hallucinations, rash, and fever. The berries are less toxic than the foliage but can result in a burning sensation in the throat.

Pruning

Trim this ground cover in the spring, to keep it manageable and discourage bacterial leaf spot. Spray with neem oil and insecticidal soap as necessary to control mites.

If English ivy is already climbing one of your trees and you wish to remove it, be careful. Do not just rip a vine off, which could hurt the tree's bark. Instead, cut each vine where you find it coming out of the soil at the base of the tree, where it begins its ascent. When cut off from the earth (and thus from a water source), the part of the vine left anchored in the tree bark will eventually wither and die.

This removal technique is the best way to get rid of the plant organically, but it does require some patience. You will need to go back year after year and cut new growth until all strength has been sapped out of the plant. It is only at this point that new shoots will stop emerging every spring.