The shift has happened. Last leaves down to reveal the trunks and tracery of branches. Winter outlines and the definition of reading individuals, their structures and differing characters against the sky. Hidden by the cloak of the growing season, but ever present, is the ivy. Where it grows uninterrupted and using the frame of another tree to make its way, a shadowy presence or a life within throws its winter outline. Dark and glossy and a refuge for the birds.
The oldest plants sit just inside the halo of their host, the growth becoming arborescent once it meets its reach. The mature ivy wood is entirely different from the juvenile, branching like antlers and without the need for the suckers that attach the young plant on its ascent. This wood, throws flowers in November, the very last forage for bees, and then goes on to weight itself with darkening, inky green berries. Fruits that at the very end of winter are ripe and ready for hungry birds. If you propagate the arborescent wood, the resulting plant retains this character and makes a fine winter evergreen if you grow it without the temptation of a support nearby. A wall or a trunk will trigger its innate desire to climb and conquer and it will revert to type if it senses an opportunity.
There are mixed feelings about the damage ivy can do. I prefer not to let it loose on buildings for it will forever be in the gutters and having a go at crumbly mortar and window frames, but I am relaxed about it growing into trees. That said, a mature plant can eventually bring a tree down, the weight of foliage providing a sail the host had never allowed for. We have an old hawthorn in the top hedge and at this time of year you can see it is more ivy than tree. Every year after a winter storm I expect it to topple, but I am happy to see the association for now striking a balance and making more of the hawthorn. Walk by it now the foliage is down elsewhere and it is alive with chatter.
Look into the winter hedges and you see that they are also laced throughout with ivy, which in turn provides the hedges with a winter opacity and shelter. The seedlings arrive there from the birds that have gorged upon a mother plant and then paused to poop and this is how they appear in the garden too. Showing you where the perches are and mapping the birds’ movements.
Holly does not do as well here in the hedges as it might on the lighter ground of acidic heathland. I have tried to introduce it, but the plants dwindle and have come to nothing, presumably due to our hearty ground and the advantage it gives to competition. The hollies do better here in isolation and out in the open and we have a pair of old trees by the potting shed that were planted when the land was once a market garden. A neighbour told us that the family who lived and worked here made Christmas wreaths from it for Bath market. Though it is now dwindling, this female tree is a good form, thornless and holding on to her berries for far longer than usual. Not far away in Batheaston a colony of suffragettes who lived in Eagle House planted a collection of hollies each one celebrating a woman who had fought for the cause. An emblem that perhaps also drew upon the ancient appreciation of the constancy provided by this plant and representing, in its winter steadfastness, an image of eternity. We wonder, a little romantically, if our plant might have originally come from the same collection and I have propagated autumn cuttings with the thought that she should have life elsewhere on the land and a new generation.
Unless you specifically buy a named female or a self-fertile tree such as ‘J. C. Van Tol’ it is pot luck whether you have bought a female or a male. Though one male can service many trees and from quite some distance when the bees are active, I have planted tens in groups where the sheep cannot get to them. One day, for they are slow, I hope they will provide our land with some weight and heft of winter evergreen.
Just this year, seven years after planting, the females are beginning to fruit. Bright and clean. Red against ink green, foliage shimmering, the leaves as reflective as mirrors when basking in winter sunshine. It is then, in this stark season that you see the holly in another light altogether. Not a tree of darkness and sobriety, but one of light and joyfulness.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 5 December 2020