English Ivy (Hedera Helix) Care Guide

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Imagine, if you will, an ancient stone cottage with a formal garden. Is there ivy growing up along the wall in your mental picture? If so, that’s likely to be English ivy.

This fantastic climbing vine develops rootlets as it grows, allowing it to cling to stone, wood, or nearly anything else. Over time, it spreads and can completely cover a wall or fence.

And yet there are some problems with common ivy that can be difficult to overcome. Not only will it cover the side of your house, but if left untamed, it’ll try to conquer your entire property.

I’ll help you to learn how to keep it contained so it does not become an invasive plant and devour everything in its path!

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Overview

English Ivy Care Guide
Quick care guide custom illustrated by Seb Westcott.
Common Name English ivy
Scientific Name Hedera helix
Family Araliaceae
Light Partial to full shade preferred
Water Water container plants when getting dry, and no more than .5 to 1” per week for in-ground plants
Temperature 65-85 degrees optimal
Humidity Likes humidity
Soil Well-drained but rich soil
Fertilizer Limit fertilizing, but use high-nitrogen fertilizers when necessary
Pests Spider mites, aphids, thrips, scale insects (mostly mealybugs). Can house garden spiders.
Diseases Fungal-based root and stem rots, fungal and bacterial leaf spots including anthracnose, sooty mold, powdery mildew

All About English Ivy

Hedera Helix Helix
The famous leaves of ivy, or hedera. Source

Botanically, it’s called Hedera helix. The latter term, helix, is derived from the Greek word “twist” or “turn”, as the vines often twist and turn as they grow.

It has been referred to as a number of other names as well. Tree ivy (Hedera arborea), Hedera baccifera, Hedera acuta, and Hedera grandifolia are all synonyms for the recognized name.

What all forms of European ivy have in common is that they climb upwards by developing rootlets along the vine. These cling readily to a number of surfaces.

The evergreen vines prefer a few surfaces, however. Rough or uneven surfaces are easier for the rootlets to grasp onto. Darker surfaces are preferred, as are moist or damp surfaces.

It’s estimated that across the different species, there are nearly 400 cultivars. These may have variegated coloration or a range of dark to light green leaves.

Those cultivars are mostly from three subspecies, each with slightly different origins and growth patterns. Those subspecies are:

Hedera helix helix

Bit redundant, right? The original English ivy, this subspecies originates in central, northern, and western Europe. These plants do not form rhizomes. The berries it produces are purplish-black in color.

Hedera helix poetarum Nyman

Throughout Italy, Turkey, and the Balkans as well as portions of southeastern Asia, this non-rhizomatic ivy grows. Its fruit is a bright orange-yellow hue.

Hedera helix rhizomatifera McAllister

Found in southeastern Spain, this particular variety does produce rhizomes. It can develop new roots even if the smallest cutting remains behind. Its fruit ranges in the purple to black spectrum.

Other Related Plants

There are also a pair of closely-related ivy species. Both are part of the Hedera family, but neither is a true English ivy, although they’re extremely similar.

These alternative species are Hedera canariensis (Canarian ivy) and Hedera hibernica (Atlantic or Irish ivy). They have differently shaped leaves, but a similar growth habit.

Both of these alternate species are often treated quite similarly, so if you’ve got either of these related species, you should be able to grow them the same way.

Types Of English Ivy

Variegated English ivy
Variegated English ivy. Source: Joel Carnat

It’s believed that there’s at least 400 different types of ivy plants. The American Ivy Society (yes, that’s a thing) has separated these cultivars into different categories based mostly on growing habits.

These categories include the following:

  • Arborescents: These plants have stiffly-upright stems and often produce flowers and fruit. Sturdy upright growers.
  • Bird’s Foot: The leaves of these cultivars are shaped like a bird’s foot, with two shorter lobes and a longer one in the center.
  • Curlies: Ivies of this sort tend to have curled, rippled, or ruffled leaves.
  • Fans: Leaves of this type tend to form an even fan shape across all of the leaf lobes.
  • Hearts: As the name would indicate, the leaves are reminiscent of a heart in shape.
  • Miniatures: These produce small leaves that grow to reach less than ½” in length.
  • Variegated: Cultivars which are variegated have multicolored leaves that are quite popular.

There’s a few other categories, but most types of ivy fall into one of the above or into the “ivy ivies” category where it has a traditional ivy leaf shape.

Beautiful, But Invasive

English ivy on tree
Climbing vines making their way up a tree. Source: Starr Environmental

You might be surprised to know that many places ban the sale of this plant. This is because it’s truly invasive in these areas and rapidly takes over. But it’s much worse than that.

It’s an evergreen climbing vine, so it can literally grow up the sides of trees and overtake the canopy, causing the tree to suffer from lack of light and slowly die off. Further, it will choke out seedling trees.

That tendency to spread and block the light prevents growth of ground-dwelling native plants as well. This can wreak havoc on a local ecosystem.

Not only does it spread via its vines, but each of its berries has up to five seeds in it. These berries can be carried for miles by birds, spreading vines far and wide.

In the United States, it’s banned from sale throughout most of the Pacific Northwest, where it thrives as an invasive species. Other states may have local bans in certain regions.

However, the plant itself is still readily found even in locations where it’s banned. Its popularity as a ground cover plant as well as a decorative one makes it hard to resist.

In the end, it’s advised that if you’re in a region where ivy thrives, you should try to resist growing it to avoid further spreading. It may be pretty, but it can become a major problem!

Can’t resist? Then monitor your ivy very closely. Remove any fruit before it ripens and is attractive to birds. Keep it trimmed, and either hot-compost or throw away clippings.

Growing ivy in containers is okay in most of these areas as long as these methods are followed. But be very mindful of your plant and make sure it doesn’t start to spread locally.

Finally, it makes a fantastic house plant, even in areas where it’s invasive. Growing it as an indoor plant can be an absolute joy.

Uses Of English Ivy

English ivy on wall
Growing up the wall of a house. Source: Carl E Lewis

The climbing properties make it excellent use in landscaping. Let’s go over some of the most common uses!

Obviously, it makes a phenomenal houseplant. When grown indoors, the possibility of it becoming an invasive species is negated, and it provides beautiful foliage for your home.

Here’s a video Kevin recorded about growing ivy indoors as a houseplant (the only way he personally grows it):

In addition, it’s one of many plants which does quite well at cleaning your air indoors. Growing these indoors is a great option for most people.

It can also be used to craft a privacy fence or green wall in your garden. If well maintained and monitored so it won’t spread, this can be a great benefit in your yard.

A privacy fence may be formed of a trellis over top of a raised bed, or can be as simple as a chain-link fence you’ve trained the ivy to grow on. You can even make portable fence segments.

Traditionally, it was used to coat the brick walls of homes or other buildings, as the plant material helps block heat from reaching the walls. It keeps homes cooler in summer and warmer in winter this way.

However, if there are any cracks in the walls of the building it’s growing on, the rootlets may grow into them and widen the crack, causing damage to a wall. If the walls are intact, it should not do damage to your home.

Finally, it’s great as an evergreen ground cover is a popular use, especially for miniature cultivars. If kept trimmed back from walls or fences, growing it this way rarely leads to berries forming.

There has been some discussion of using ground ivy in fire-prone areas as a fire prevention method. The green, moist leaves do not as readily catch fire as dry brush.

English Ivy Care

English ivy flowers
Bloom time for this gorgeous vine. Source: Wiandt Kertészet

With the above section in mind, here’s a list of ideal conditions. For all of its invasive properties, it’s still a stunning plant!

Light & Temperature

If you are growing your ivy indoors, it does well in bright, indirect lighting. The multicolored, variegated cultivars may prefer a bit more light than the solid green ones.

South or west-facing windows may be a bit drying to the plant, especially midsummer. At these times of year, the indirect lighting from a north or east-facing window should be enough.

Using grow lights? If so, opt to keep them far enough away that the heat from the lights doesn’t dry the leaves. It also responds well to T5 grow lights if you’d prefer that.

If growing ivy outdoors, it does well in both partial sun and shade, but prefers areas which are shady during the heat of the day. Temperatures of 65-85° Fahrenheit are perfect.

Heat above 90° can cause poor growth and dieback of plants.

Water & Humidity

Container-grown plants should be watered in a specific way to prevent possible fungal root rots from developing.

Check the soil before watering. If the soil is mostly dry, water thoroughly until water comes out the base of its container. Allow the soil to dry out mostly before the next watering.

In the summer, it may require more water to sustain itself, especially if it’s in full sun. Humidity can be raised around the plant by placing a pebble bowl with water nearby.

If your ivy is planted directly in the ground, its root system likely goes deep enough that it shouldn’t require more than ½” to 1” of water per week.

Finally, whether grown indoors or outdoors, young new plants require a bit more water than older ones do. Make sure the soil of young plants remains evenly moist until established.

Soil

English ivy hedera helix
They make excellent evergreen ground covers. Source: Starr Environmental

Being somewhat invasive, it can adapt to nearly any type of soil. Dry soil, well-drained soil…it’s all good. In a perfect world, it prefers soil with a pH level between 6.0 and 7.5. Avoid overly clay-based soils, as these can prevent good drainage.

If you’ll be growing your ivy indoors, a mix of equal parts perlite, peat moss, and topsoil makes for a rich soil which can be watered infrequently.

If you water more frequently, opt for either a soilless planting medium or a well draining potting soil. As stated above, only water when your planting medium is mostly dry.

Fertilizer

To achieve dense growth, it will require nitrogen, so a fertilizer which is high in nitrogen is perfect. You can opt for a NPK blend that’s higher on the nitrogen, or just nitrogen on its own.

Fertilization should be somewhat infrequent, and should only be applied to the soil. Foliar feeding isn’t a big priority for this plant.

Indoor plants only need to be fertilized while they’re actively growing in the spring or fall months, about once per month. In summer and winter when growth slows, avoid fertilizing.

Outdoor plants can be fed a slow-release nitrogen-rich fertilizer in early spring and early fall, and that keep the soil fertile and moist for your plant’s needs.

Propagation

English ivy berries
English ivy berries, almost fully matured. Source: anro0002

You can propagate it from cuttings or from seed.

Often, seed is not commercially available in all regions. However, viable seed forms in mature berries. Be cautious while harvesting seed, as the berries are poisonous to humans.

It’s much easier to start from cuttings. Begin by selecting a healthy ivy vine, preferably from young growth as it’s more vigorous and with many leaves.

Once you have cut free the ivy vine, you will cut it into segments. Each segment should have leaves, and should be cut off above the leaf and at least 1-1.5” below the leaf.

Dip the cut edge below the leaf into rooting hormone and place into your desired rooting medium. Moistened sand works extremely well for this.

Once placed into the medium, place a plastic bag over the top of the container to help keep the humidity up around the cutting. Keep the sand moist, but not excessively wet.

Your cutting should begin to sprout new growth when it’s nearing time to transplant. This process takes 6-8 weeks time.

Repotting

Repot when the plant dries out too quickly, when it’s root-bound, or when the foliage gets top-heavy. This is usually going to need to be done about once a year. Use clay or plastic pots, but be aware clay dries out faster!

Avoid using a pot which is much larger than your plant, as this can lead to too much moisture in the soil and can cause root rot. Select a pot which is just large enough to hold the roots.

Always use pre-moistened soil for transplanting. If using a clay pot, soak the pot before planting as well to help promote moisture-retention.

Loosen the root ball so that the roots have room to stretch. Place a mesh screen or old nylons over the drainage holes in the pot, and place a little fresh soil in to hold the screen in place.

Gently spread the roots over the soil in the bottom of the pot, then fill soil in around the roots until just below the pot’s rim. Water the plant in until water comes out the base of the pot.

Pruning

There are different methods of pruning your English ivy depending on where it’s being grown.

If your ivy is grown as a ground cover, start the year with a solid pruning before new growth begins to form in the spring. Use a mower on its highest height setting, or prune by hand.

Trim along sidewalks, walkways, or other undesired growth pathways at any time to keep the ivy enclosed. A good pair of shears will work well for this purpose.

Ivies that are grown upright can be trimmed at any time to remove excess growth or keep it shaped to the surface it’s climbing on. This is mostly a cosmetic pruning form.

Indoors, the vines can become leggy over time. You can simply pinch back or snip off excess growth just above a leaf to make it more visually appealing.

Growing Problems

The biggest problem with growing English ivy is keeping it from becoming overgrown. But are there other issues that might arise? Let’s talk about that.

Growing Problems

Leaves that are going dry or turning brown around the edges are a problem. There’s a few different things which can cause this to happen.

Overwatering can cause fungal root rot issues to develop. This will in time lead to browning leaves and other foliage failures. Don’t overwater!

Plants which don’t have high enough humidity in their air may also develop browning, drying leaves. This is especially true of indoor container plants.

To increase the humidity, you can place it on top of or next to a tray of pebbles with some water in the bottom. As the water evaporates, it provides added humidity. You can also get a humidifier for your plants.

Soil additives such as fertilizer or mineral salts can also cause leaf-browning. Too much fertilizer in the soil or watering with hard water can create toxic levels in the soil makeup.

Avoiding toxicity in the soil can be achieved by watering with distilled water, and making sure you do not fertilize heavily.

Pests

English ivy flower closeup
A closeup of a flower. Source: Joan Simon

The worst pests that most encounter are spider mites. These pests love dry conditions, and often will make a webbed home beneath the leaves. Spider mite damage is visible as small brownish spots on the leaves, and a bad infestation turns whole leaves brown.

To combat spider mites as well as aphids, spray neem oil on all surfaces of the plant. The oil will smother mite and aphid eggs while it poisons adults.

Thrips can also move into ivy growth. While these prefer other plants, the lush foliage of ivy is a tempting target. To beat thrips, use insecticidal soap with a little neem oil mixed in, and spray it on all portions of the plant. This combination also works for spider mites and aphids!

Another pest which may appear is scale insects, although primarily mealybugs. Like the other pests mentioned above, these can be wiped out using neem oil, although it may be easier to trim off badly-infected leaves and throw them away.

Finally, there’s one last pest that makes its home in English ivy, but this pest is not likely to hurt the plant. An assortment of spiders love to nest inside, as it has plenty of shade and lots of nooks and crannies to hide under.

Spiders are more of a concern if your ivy is along the walls of your home near windows, as the spiders may find a way inside. Your best bet is to ensure that all cracks in walls or windows are sealed thoroughly to stop them from making entry. Most of the time they’re beneficial in the yard!

Diseases

There’s a list of diseases which might cause damage. One of the most common is fungal-based root rots (and to a lesser extent stem rots). Caused by Phymatotrichum omnivorum or Rhizoctonia solani, both fungi, these start from overwatering.

If your ivy appears to be turning yellow or brown and there’s no visible signs of pest infestation, it’s likely that you’ve developed some rot issues. Repotting in better-draining soil may help recover some plants, but badly rotted roots may require the plant to be disposed of.

Anthracnose is another problem common to ivies. If there’s no sign of spider mites but your leaves are developing brownish spots, this may be the culprit. Spray neem oil over all surfaces of the plant to prevent this, or use a sulfur dust on your ivy to take out the fungal cause.

Other fungal leaf spots such as Ramularia hedericola, Macrophoma spp., Phyllosticta concentrica, Phytophthora spp., and Glomerella cingulata may also develop. Use a copper-based fungicidal spray such as Monterey Liqui-Cop to eliminate these fungi.

Bacterial leaf spots of the Xanthomonas species are not uncommon on ivy as well. These respond well to Serenade Garden as a treatment, but Monterey Liqui-Cop will also work to halt the spread of this disease.

Sooty mold may develop on leaf surfaces. This is actually fungal growth on the insect secretion known as honeydew, which is caused by aphids and other sucking insect pests. To eliminate sooty mold, eliminate the insects, and the grey to black growth will weather away.

Finally, we come to powdery mildew. This dusty-looking mildew is actually another fungal growth caused by too much moisture on the leaves of a plant. If you avoid watering the ivy leaves and it has good airflow, powdery mildew will fade away.

If avoiding moisture on the leaves of your ivy isn’t an option, use neem oil to eliminate outbreaks of powdery mildew when it forms. It will take multiple treatments to kill off the powdery mildew, but it works very well.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Is it poisonous to humans or animals?

A: In short, yes. The ASPCA says that English ivy is poisonous to cats, dogs, and horses. Some livestock sources say cattle and sheep may also suffer from eating it.

For humans, the sap can cause a form of contact dermatitis in susceptible people. The leaves and berries are also poisonous. Don’t eat this, and keep it away from children and pets!

Q: It produces blue-black berries…are they edible?

A. Birds eat the berries! But if you’re human (and you must be if you’re reading this), don’t. The blue-black berries can cause gastric distress, difficulties breathing, and much worse conditions.

Q: I’m doing everything I “should” be doing and my it’s still dying…what’s happening?

A. If you’re giving your plant enough light, watering appropriately and have the right kind of soil and your ivy is STILL dying, the most likely culprit is spider mites. Check on the underside of leaves for the telltale signs.

Q: I have a variegated ivy plant, but it’s losing its variegation. How do I get it back?

A. This is a common problem with a simple solution! Variegated foliage will start disappearing if not exposed to enough light. Simply move your plant to an area with more light. The leaves that lost their variegation won’t turn back, but new leaves will be variegated.


The Green Thumbs Behind This Article:

Kevin Espiritu
Founder

English ivy is both beautiful and potentially invasive. I\'ll teach you how to grow it, and also how to keep it from spreading like wildfire!
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12 thoughts on “English Ivy (Hedera Helix) Care Guide”

  1. Just a general question… when does variegation start on a new leaf? Every new bud and leaf coming out of my plant is green, but they are still very small of course.

    • It really depends on the cultivar. Different cultivars will have different variegation times. If you’re concerned, give the ivy a bit extra exposure to light to try to kick-start the variegation. A lack of light can cause the variegation to be lost.

  2. Almost all varieties of English ivy can certainly be invasive when left to their own devices. This post is very helpful in explaining the different ways to manage and maintain English ivy in all its glory. Thank you so much for this lovely post!

      • Not all ivy plants are English ivy. In fact, there’s 12-15 different Hedera species, but only one of those is Hedera helix (English ivy). Some ivy species like Irish or Atlantic ivy or Canarian ivy grow similarly to English ivy, however.

        As for purification, all plants purify the air to a certain degree, but only English ivy was included in NASA’s Clean Air Study. It would not surprise me if other ivies would have some similar effect, but they may not be as good at reducing the levels of benzene, formaldehyde, toluene and xylene from the air as English ivy is.

        Mold is a tricky thing. I would opt for a good quality HEPA filtration system in your air ducts over trusting any plant to reduce mold in your home. While some varieties of mold may be reduced by English ivy and other plants, other forms of mold would become more prevalent. It’s safest to just go with a good HEPA filter on that angle!

  3. My new pups have stripped the leaves off the ivy stems. Will the leaves come back or do they only get leaves on the new growth at the ends?

  4. The leaves on mine keep drying up. I always thought it was because I was overwatering and it would get root rot. However, I barely watered my newest one and the same thing happened… is there something I am missing?

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