In the rear of the garden, there’s ivy (Hedera helix) clinging to the fence, between us and the Gateway site. Ivy is adaptable and also grows on the ground, forming dense clumps. It is frequently used as ground cover, though it is rather dull if not interspersed with more colourful plants. We see it everywhere, on the walls of old houses, climbing trees, on fences and rambling on waste ground.
Hedera comes from the Greek for ‘grasp’ and helix for ‘spiral’, which pictures the plant quite well. It is not a parasite like mistletoe, as it doesn’t take sustenance from a tree it grows up, but clings to it for support. Though it can overweigh a tree, causing it to topple in high winds. Ivy adds a gothic atmosphere to old houses. If managed in such places, it is not a problem, but otherwise ivy can block guttering and drains.
It is able to cling because of the aerial rootlets which grow along its branches. These roots are a centimetre or two long, and have tiny root hairs which grow into crevices on the surface of whatever it is clinging to, be it a wall, a fence or a tree. The root hairs secrete an adhesive which is very strong. If you try to climb the ivy, a favourite trope in gothic fiction, you may pull down the ivy but leave the roots with their root hairs behind.
Ivy flowers in late summer in greenish yellow clusters. Its berries go from green to black in late autumn and winter, though there are varieties with orange berries. Slightly poisonous to us, but birds enjoy them. After the last ice age, which was on the wane around 11,000 years ago, it is thought ivy was brought to the UK by birds.
The plant is a great habitat for an assortment of insect life and spiders, and so is fine in our garden where we encourage minibeasts. Many gardeners go in for the variegated types which add interest, especially in winter as ivy retains its leaves. In some parts of the world though, including the US, parts of Australia and New Zealand, ivy is regarded as an invasive species.
We have a papyrus plant (Cyperus papyrus) in the pond, just a couple of feet high, a plant in the sedge family growing in shallow water. In the Nile region, this plant can be seen growing to 16 feet high. There are islands of it, and it can block channels. Its flowering heads were used to make garlands for Ancient Egyptian gods.
The first papyrus paper was made by the Ancient Egyptians, the earliest known dating back to the 4th millennium BC. Papyrus was also used to make baskets, sandals and boats. Papyrus paper is not pliable enough to fold without cracking, and so it had to be made into scrolls. There are examples in the British Museum and the Ashmolean in Oxford. In northern Europe it was replaced by parchment and vellum made from animal skins, and later by paper made from the wood pulp from a variety of trees. The word ‘paper’, derived from papyrus, is a link to its past.