The ivy plant is one of the most commonly found plants in gardens, but it can be difficult to identify. Ivy identification is key for knowing which type of ivy you’re dealing with and how best to remove them from your garden.

Ivy smothers and kills all plants from ground level to canopy, destroy vulnerable epiphyte niches, and prevents the establishment of native plant seedlings.

The weight of an infestation can bring down branches or whole trees. Invasion into well-established forests is slow but relentless through the ground or canopy.

Quick Facts

Common names: common ivy, Atlantic ivy, English ivy
Scientific name: Hedera helix
Family: Araliaceae
Origin: native
Flowering season: September to February
Habitat: woodland, wasteland, isolated trees, urban areas, overgrown borders, parks and gardens

Ivy Identification

There are two native subspecies of ivy in the British Isles: Hedera helix ssp. helix and Hedera helix ssp. Hibernia.

The subspecies hibernica does not climb but spreads across the ground. There are also many cultivated varieties of ivy, with differing leaves which are variable in size, colour, number and depth of lobes. The leaves are often variegated green with white, cream or yellow.

It is tolerant of shade and survives in all but the driest, waterlogged or acidic soils.

However, Ivy is in fact not harmful when present on a trunk and when present on the crown of a tree this is usually only because the trees are already in decline or are diseased and slowly dying anyway. Ivy is very distinct with its shiny dark green colour and is a five-pointed leaf.

On the other hand, in the instances where ivy has grown on old or damaged trees and the evergreen cover has hidden cavities or areas of decay, this is a sign that the ivy should be controlled. Ivy can also become an additional weight in the canopy of a tree which in time could affect its stability, especially in windy conditions.

Quite often trees are grown for their attractive stem or bark, such as birch and some acres, so it is advisable that one prevents ivy from obscuring these ornamental features.

What does Ivy look like?

Ivy is an evergreen, woody climber which can grow to a height of 30m. It has two different forms – juvenile and mature. It has climbing stems with specialised hairs which help it stick to surfaces as it climbs. Mature forms can be self-supporting.

Characteristics that make up the Ivy] leaf, stem, root and flower are detailed below.

Leaves: Hairless dark green or variegated ivory-white glossy leaves (3-15 cm long) with pale veins are arranged alternately on stems, and are variably shaped (usually shallowly lobed).

Leaves of juvenile forms have 3-5 lobes and a pale underside. On mature forms, leaves are oval or heart-shaped without lobes.

Ivy leaves with their three-prong shape
Ivy leaves with their three-prong shape

Roots: English Ivy roots usually grow 2-5 inches below the surface of the soil and can spread up to 10 ft from their original planting area.

Flowers: When the vine is mature it produces small greenish flowers that occur in umbrella-like clusters.

Tiny, insignificant yellowish-green flowers (Mar-May) are sometimes followed by purple to blackberries (5-8 mm diameter) containing seeds with low viability.

Only mature plants produce flowers. They are yellowish-green and appear in small, dome-shaped clusters known as umbels.

The umbrella head of Ivy
The umbrella head of Ivy

Fruits/Seeds: Black, berry-like and almost globular in clusters.

Note: Leaves and berries are poisonous. Flower pollen can irritate eyes and a mite associated with Ivy can be an irritant for some people.

The Problem

Common Ivy or English Ivy can also do damage to brickwork as it supports itself by aerial roots which can penetrate cracks and joints causing structural damage. Where the brickwork of the building is sound, the main problem will be keeping the growth away from the gutters and paintwork.

When carrying out work with ivy you will need to check that birds aren’t nesting in the area as it is an offence under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 to damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird while it is in use or being built. As a rough guide, the nesting season is generally between March and August but can last longer with certain species so always check.

Ivy Seasonal Changes

It’s an evergreen plant so leaves can be seen at any time of the year. It flowers from September to November and its fruits ripen from November to January.

Clings to and climbs almost any surface, can grow over the forest floor, sub-canopy and canopy to great heights, forming dense, long-lived masses at a moderate to fast growth rate and completely smothering tree trunks and branches.

Method One – Herbicide Treatment

Glyphosate – Because of the glossy, moisture-resistant quality of its leaf surface, ivy is difficult to eradicate using weedkiller sprays. In this case, harsh glyphosate formulations (e.g. Roundup Ultra, SBM Job done Tough Weedkiller (soluble sachet only), or Ecofective Rootblast Super Strength Weedkiller) or Roundup Gel for spot treatment are the best options.

Cover neighbouring plants with polythene and keep it in place until the spray has dried to stop the spray from getting into touch with the foliage or green stems of other plants. Prior to treatment, bruising the leaves with trampling or the back of a rake may aid in weedkiller uptake. Treatment must usually be repeated in order to achieve effective control.

Use glyphosate in a knapsack to spray the affected area during a summer’s evening for best results. Add penetrant to all mixes. Do not use for ivy growing against trees.

Triclopyr – Vitax SBK Brushwood Killer, which contains triclopyr, can be used in rough grass areas because it will not harm long grass. However, it may alter the developing growth points of bulbs, especially if administered late in the season, resulting in leaf and maybe flower distortion the following season. As a result, avoid as much run-off into the soil as possible when treating areas under-planted with bulbs.

Once you have killed the foliage, carefully pull the ivy away from the wall. You can then give another glyphosate or triclopyr treatment to the stump. Ivy should be dug from the root to stop it from growing anywhere that it could cause harm.

Method Two – Stem injection or frilling

Stem injection – At the base of the tree, drill holes at a 45° angle into the sapwood (just under the outer bark) at two-finger spaced intervals around the entire base of the tree. Repeat this process below the lowest branch

Frilling – As an alternative to drilling, make cuts into the sapwood with a chisel or axe. Fill each cut/hole with herbicide immediately. Repeat the process at 3 cm intervals around the tree.

Ivy growing across the ground
Ivy growing across the ground

Management of Ivy

Cut stems root at nodes, and stumps resprout. Many plants do not produce viable (or any) seed, yet ivy is difficult to eradicate and dispose of once established. Tree growth can thrive for a long time after a stump is cut in wet locations.

However, in the majority of situations, the vine dies slowly. To minimise shock to host trees, remove long stems gradually after cutting stump for aerial development on trees in moist places.

Leave stems to die on the tree in all other circumstances. All chopped stems should be dried and burned or buried deeply, or taken to a waste disposal facility.

After ivy is removed, make sure to mulch the area to resist re-invasion by ivy and other weeds. For large areas, it is helpful to put in native or other desirable plants to help reduce erosion and long-term weed problems. Before planting, it is a good idea to wait at least a few months or until spring to watch for re-sprouts or skips since they will be easier to see and pull while the area is still clear.

In Conclusion

Our ultimate in-depth guide to ivy identification and removal gives you everything you need to know about identifying the different types of ivy, how fast they grow, what conditions favour its growth, how to control them with herbicides or manual methods, as well as helpful tips for removing the plants from your home or garden without damaging nearby plants or structures.

Ivy is an aggressive invader growing densely along the ground and into the tree canopy. It smothers native vegetation and results in loss of biodiversity. Vines climbing up trees if untreated will eventually disrupt the tree’s growth and cause the death of the tree.

How does Ivy spread?

It spreads via its fruit.

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