English Ivy: Another Vine That’s Eating the South

English ivy spread by birds. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

Over thirty years ago, I moved to Chapel Hill from New York City. Having grown up in Washington, DC, I had determined that I was neither a Northerner nor a Southerner but was from a nebulous region termed “Mid-Atlantic” – essentially meaning I think that I belonged nowhere. Who discusses the “Mid-Atlantic” in the same serious terms we use in defining the North and the South?

Consequently, there were things I didn’t know about the area I was moving to. I vaguely knew that Southerners referred to kudzu as “the vine that’s eating the South,” but I had never seen the ravages this vine imposed upon the landscape. And, more importantly, I soon transferred that definition to another plant: English ivy, Hedera helix. Who knew that it, too, was a menace?

My lesson in the perils caused by English ivy came down to this: My whole front yard was swathed in English ivy, a vine that was even crawling up the trees. Several gardeners warned me that such a lush area of green vegetation was a harbor for copperheads – and already suffering from ophidiophobia, I quickly concluded that the English ivy had to go.

English ivy is both a groundcover and a climbing vine. As a groundcover, it simply knows no limits – this is known as its juvenile stage. When it manifests a keen ability to scale trees, grasping with steel-like tendrils, it enters adulthood. As it hovers high in the trees, adult-stage English ivy contributes mightily to its ability to spread, achieving two purposes: It adds dangerous weight to the trees while producing the berries that birds love. The seeds pass through the birds’ digestive systems, spreading to new unconquered land. The adult stage is easy to recognize as it has lost its ability to climb, swinging downward from high up in the tree.

My English ivy had one thing going for it, however. Over the half-century, it had constituted as the front yard, and decaying vegetation had created great soil underneath it. As a new gardener, I quickly determined that the ivy had to go. A good loamy soil is a true gift to the gardener, especially a new one.

Originally, I began pulling it out by hand, assuming that the copperheads would move to a more established ground cover. This, however, created another problem: What should I do with the carcasses? Garden refuse pickup occurs once a week – and I could easily fill up all my bins in one hour. My hands, despite heavy gardening gloves, were raw. Hand pulling was an answer, but not a very good one.

My builder came by one day while I was struggling with the ivy problem. Announcing that he could pull it out in one afternoon with his bobcat, he also volunteered to take away the mountains of remains. Consequently, I handed the problem over to him – and it worked like a charm. Clearly, bobcats were created to take out half-acres of English ivy.

Now here is the thing about English ivy: It’s both invasive and opportunistic. Give it an inch, it will go a mile, albeit not as quickly as kudzu. It’s now illegal to grow it in parts of Virginia, Washington State and Oregon. Unlike kudzu that is nutritious, English ivy is toxic both to humans and some livestock, although deer will eat it – but not quickly enough to get rid of it.

The aftermath of the English ivy removal saga remains a happy story as its departure became the basis for my garden. The soil is still lovely – and I personally find the front yard is more attractive when filled with plants rather than unacceptable English ivy.

Why is this noxious plant still sold at North Carolina garden centers? I have always heard that “there’s a strong English ivy lobby” here in the state. I have no idea if this is true or whether local garden centers hand out that excuse in order to get people such as me off their backs.

The wide availability of English ivy at garden centers in our state reflects the fact that gardeners must be careful in choosing plants for the garden. Just as the availability of certain foods at the supermarket doesn’t mean that they are safe or good for you, the accessibility of certain plants at garden centers indicates what sells rather than what is optimal for the environment. When it comes down to English ivy, remember that old dictum “buyer beware.”

My advice is this: Please do not purchase this plant and please do not plant it. If you have English ivy and cannot get rid of it conveniently, please do not allow it to climb as it is at its most invasive when it is in its adult stage. And remember this: We have plenty of suitable plants that will provide cover for copperheads.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at howyourgardengrows@icloud.com.
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2 Comments on "English Ivy: Another Vine That’s Eating the South"

  1. Kerry-Ann da Costa | December 7, 2023 at 7:11 pm | Reply

    I like your straight advice, and your comparison to the supermarket. Excellent piece.

  2. Amen… Don’t plant it. Be vigilant in removing it – I am always checking the area for those sprout that think they can live in my garden.

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