Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 532-A   June 1, 1974
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Strictly speaking, an ivy is one of five species of woody vines with evergreen leaves. They are famous for their ability to climb and creep over the walls of buildings. However, there are some other kinds of woody climbing vines, also known as ivies, which shed their leaves each autumn and belong to much different plant families. Further, there are several plants popularly called ivies because they have long trailing stems, although none of them is woody and they do not climb.

For example, Ground Ivy is one name for Creeping Charlie or Gill- over-the-ground, a pesky weed that spreads by means of long stems or "runners" that take root at intervals. It has little purplish flowers and is related to catnip in the Mint Family. Kenilworth Ivy, used in homes and greenhouses, is another crawling plant with weak stems that root freely at their joints. It belongs to the same family as our common mullein. German Ivy, also used in hanging gardens because of its long twining stems, has composite flowers and is related to such plants as burdock and Canada thistle.

The true ivies are members of the Ginseng Family. Their woody vines cling to wood or masonry surfaces by means of innumerable aerial rootlets. They are peculiar in that leaves on the older vines have from 3 to 7 lobes, depending upon the species, but those on the young creeping vines tend to be narrower and have fewer lobes. In autumn, clusters of small greenish flowers bloom on the younger growths, followed by little black or yellowish berries that do not ripen until the following spring. These berries contain a poisonous substance. It is also present in the leaves and stems which may cause a severe skin rash if they are handled by susceptible people.

Best known and most widely used is the English Ivy, a European species, it leaves are dark green above, much lighter underneath, and rather stiff. At least two dozen varieties have been developed, some of them for use as ground cover in heavily shaded places. Irish Ivy, which has larger leaves, is an African species frequently used in England as a ground cover beneath big yew trees where grass will not grow. It does not do well in North America.

Of the deciduous ivies -- those that shed their leaves in autumn -- the favorite in our country is the Boston or Japanese Ivy. It climbs and clings to walls by means of short many-branched tendrils that have tiny adhesive pads at their tips. The apple-green leaves assume beautiful hues of red, orange and bronze in autumn. Its little bluish black berries hang on until late in spring.

Our native American Ivy, a member of the Grape Family, is commonly called Virginia Creeper or Woodbine. It has large compound leaves, each with five-toothed leaflets, and is a harmless beautiful climber. It should not be confused with Poison Ivy, that 3-leaves villain of the Sumac Family.

Dear Old Alma Mater, with her Halls of ivy!

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