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 covered vast areas of Europe.

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

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 needs 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. Before planting English ivy, consult a local extension office to confirm that it is not considered an invasive species in your area.

English ivy can be grown indoors, where it thrives with relatively cool nights and frequent misting to maintain humidity. However, it is generally considered to be a finicky houseplant, despite its being a common offering at garden centers.

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.

Ivy grown indoors needs bright, indirect light in summer but can benefit from some direct light in winter.

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. A thick layer of mulch helps keep the soil moist in dry climates.

Indoors, ivy does best in potting mix that is loose and well-drained.

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 plants 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 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Their leaves will stay dark green when grown in consistent temperatures and medium to high humidity. It does not like cold winter wind or high summer heat.

Try to keep indoor plants cool at night, below 60 F if possible. In some areas and with some species of ivy, it's possible to keep potted plants outdoors in winter, and new growth emerges from the stems in spring.

Fertilizer

Feed English ivy every two weeks during the spring and summer season, using a 20-10-10 fertilizer (or a 2-1-1 organic formula). 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.

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 ground cover plants in the spring to keep it manageable and discourage bacterial leaf spot. Prune any ivy into a bushy shape by pinching off its growing tips, also in spring. A hard pruning every few years helps revitalize the plant.

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.

Propagating

The same trimmings or stem cuttings that you take from pruning your ivy can be used to propagate new plants. Use healthy stems that are 4 to 5 inches long. Submerge the cut ends in water and wait for roots to develop, then transfer the stems to a pot or the ground. Plants grown as ground cover naturally spread when stems contact the soil and take root; you can cut rooted stems and dig them up to move them to a pot or a different garden location.

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.

Small ivy plants can be repotted once a year; larger plants can be repotted every two years. Always repot with new potting soil to ensure adequate nutrition. Older plants that can use a boost often can be revived by simply replacing the soil in the same container.

Common Pests and Diseases

English ivy often becomes host to aphids and spider mites, both of which can be sprayed off with water and can be controlled with neem oil or insecticidal soap. One homemade remedy for aphids is to spray the foliage with a mixture of dish soap and water.

Diseases that affect ivy include bacterial leaf spot (Xanthomonas) and Rhizoctonia root rot. Leaf spot appears as as black or dark brown spotting on the plant foliage. Unfortunately, the best remedy is to remove the affected plants. Help protect any remaining plants by spraying them with a 10-to-1 mixture of water to vinegar.

Rhizoctonia root rot is typically caused by warm and humid weather and can be fatal to affected plants. Again, removal is the best remedy. Unaffected remaining plants can be treated with fungicide for protection.