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COUNTRY & GARDEN: Herbs No 6: Ivy

DID YOU ever wonder about the verse in one of our favourite carols that tells us that when holly and ivy are full-grown, the holly bears the crown? This particular verse seems to have been incorporated into a religious song by accident, a relic of the good old days when green giants swung holly clubs and bacchantes danced through the woods in ivy wreaths and little else. Ivy, perhaps because it was so successful at strangling vines, was celebrated by the ancient Greeks for its ability to prevent intoxication. Bacchus, who never appeared without a wreath of it, learned how to hold his drink when he was but a lad, carousing from an ivy-covered cave in Nyssa. Greek poets always had their foreheads bound with ivy before they started declaiming, presumably to stop the muse from carrying them away. Ivy's link to intoxication survived into medieval times, when tavernkeepers often made use of an ivy bush for their sign. "Good wine needs no bush" was a saying still in use in the 19th century, although its meaning had been forgotten. Queen Victoria surely didn't have drink in mind when she twined a fresh wreath of Osborne ivy through her tiara one evening?

Writers of the romantic period doted on the stuff, as did the creators of wildernesses and follies for fashionably picturesque gardens. Ivy, for the late 18th-century garden designer, had the uncommon benefit of creating a ruined aspect while keeping out damp with a thick curtain of leaves.

Washington Irving's immensely popular essay on an English Christmas worked in a shrewd tribute to ivy, winding round "gothic arch and mouldering tower," a visitor to Tintern Abbey in 1770 grew misty-eyed over the sights of its ivy-tangled arches. John Clare took a more practical view, recalling the old tradition of bringing ivy into the house as a Christmas decoration. Garlands of it were hung around paintings, the berries painted red and the branches dabbed with limewash.

Clare seems not to have known that the custom dated back to pagan times and that decorating houses with ivy had at one time been sternly forbidden as an act of sacrilege.

Ivy planted beside a shared wall - I write in rancour from the other side - is keen to meet the neighbours. Capable of climbing 100ft with no difficulty, it can smother a tree in 30 years and strangle a rambling rose in two. One way to evict it is to plant tagetes minuta, the toughest variety of marigolds, beside the ground roots. Leave it too long and you may have to use a crowbar to prise its tenacious suckers from bark, brick or stone.

I used to be rather sceptical about the cows in The Winter's Tale who go ivy browsing just after Autolycus's famous exit ("Exit, pursued by bear").

Since then, at least two farmers have told me that cattle, although reluctant to eat ivy when anything else is available, will eat only that if they've been poisoned by the ubiquitous ragwort.

Culpepper warned his readers only to take ivy externally; one rather surprising use was as a cure for sunburn. (A poultice of ivy steins boiled in butter.) I'd prefer to recommend the leaves, boiled and strained, as a reviver for black silk. It works.