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Hedera helix 'Hibernica', common ivy

Summary

Though not the 'poison ivy' found in the USA, common ivy is poisonous and capable of causing, less severe, skin problems.

Family

Araliaceae

Meaning of the Name

Hedera
Only the circular translation from the Latin for ivy has been found. It may be ‘edera’ based on ‘era’, ‘mistress of the house’ resulting from its place as the goddess of plant life.
 
helix
Both Latin and Greek use ‘helix’ to mean ‘twining’.

Common Names and Synonyms

Irish ivy, common ivy.

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

Contains saponins, digestion of which results in hydrolysis and production of toxic substances. Ingestion has emetic and purgative effects and is reported to cause laboured breathing, convulsions and coma. Not recently reported to have caused poisoning as its potential harm is well understood.

The Auckland Regional Council, see below, says that dust from Ivy can lead to sneezing and eye irritation. For that reason, many people say it should not be brought into the house.

Incidents

The last known case of poisoning by ingestion was in the first quarter of the 20th century but there are a number of reported cases of skin irritation from handling the plant and, as a result, a number of papers have been written about its effects on the skin.

A couple of cases of breathing difficulties, one requiring hospital admission, have also been mentioned.

Folklore and Facts

Hedera helix 'Hibernica', common ivy

Hedera helix 'Hibernica', common ivy

Ivy is the goddess who carries life through the winter. Holly was her god. Ivy was in high esteem among the ancients and its leaves formed the poet's crown. It was dedicated to the Roman god Bacchus, the God of Intoxication who is often depicted wearing a wreath of ivy and grapevines. He is also depicted holding a chalice and carrying a wand which was entwined with ivy and vine leaves. Wearing a wreath of ivy leaves around the brow is supposed to prevent intoxication.

Ivy has been regarded as the emblem of fidelity and Greek priests would present a wreath of ivy to newly married persons. Women carried ivy to aid fertility and bring good luck. They also carried it to ensure fidelity and from this came the custom of brides carrying ivy.

The custom of decorating houses and churches with ivy at Christmas is sometimes seen as the Christian Church adopting pagan associations.

Ivy is not native in New Zealand and is, therefore, a problem in the same way that Japanese knotweed is in the UK. As a result, it is not permitted to be sold, propagated, distributed or commercially displayed. It is classified as a Regional Surveillance Plant Pest in Auckland. The objective is to prevent its further spread by humans.

Farmers have been known to use ivy to stimulate the appetite of sheep if they have gone off their feed.

Though not, generally, a key component of the 'soporific sponge', used to achieve anaesthesia for the performance of surgery, ivy does feature in one of the earliest recorded recipes. The precise origin of the sponge recipe is impossible to determine but one of the first published accounts is found in the 'Antidotarium' of Nicolaus Salernitanus, Nicholas of Salerno, printed in 1470 but which would have to have been written in the 12th century if it is the work of Nicholas. In this recipe, the normally quoted formula of opium, henbane and hemlock is augmented with mulberry juice, mandrake, ivy and lettuce.

A sponge would be soaked in the juice of these plants and then dried to be held in stock until required. Wetting the sponge and placing it over the patient's nose and mouth resulted in the inhalation of the narcotic fumes. It is said that sleep lasting up to 96 hours could be achieved so that the body had the opportunity to recover from the trauma of surgery as well as the patient being insensible during the procedure.

IMPORTANT NOTE

The POISON GARDEN website is not connected with Alnwick Garden Enterprises Ltd and/or The Alnwick Garden Trust.

 

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Introduction to the A to Z section
Abrus precatorius, rosary pea
Aconitum lycoctonum, wolfsbane
Aconitum napellus, monkshood
Actaea racemosa, black cohosh
Actaea spicata, baneberry
Aesculus hippocastanum, horse chestnut
Amanita muscaria, fly agaric
Aquilegia atrata, columbine
Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort
Artemisia absinthium, wormwood
Arum italicum, Italian cuckoopint
Arum maculatum, cuckoopint
Aspergillus fumigatus
Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade
Brugmansia suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Bryonia dioica, bryony
Buxus sempervirens, common box
Camellia sinensis, tea
Cannabis sativa, marijuana
Catha edulis, khat
Chelidonium majus, greater celandine
Cimicifuga racemosa, black cohosh
Claviceps purpurea, ergot
Clematis vitalba, old man's beard
Colchicum autumnale, naked ladies
Conium maculatum, poison hemlock
Convallaria majalis, lily of the valley
Cynoglossum officinale, hound’s tongue
Daphne mezereon, spurge olive
Datura stramonium, thorn apple, jimsonweed
Datura suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Delphinium, larkspur
Digitalis spp., foxglove
Dracunculus vulgaris, dragon arum
Echium vulgare, viper’s bugloss
Eranthis hyemalis, winter aconite
Erythroxylum coca, cocaine
Euonymus europaeus, spindle tree
Euphorbia x martinii, red spurge
Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia
Fritillaria spp., fritillary
Galanthus nivalis, snowdrop
Hedera helix, common ivy
Helleborus spp., hellebore
Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed
Hyacinthoides non-scripta, bluebell
Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane
Ilex aquifolium, holly
Jacobaea vulgaris, ragwort
Juniperus communis, common juniper
Laburnum anagyroides, laburnum
Lactuca serriola, prickly lettuce
Leucojum aestivum, snowflake
Lithospermum officinale, gromwell
Lolium temulentum, darnel
Malus 'John Downie', crab apple
Mandragora officinarum, mandrake
Mercurialis perennis, dog’s mercury
Narcissus, daffodil
Nepeta faassenii, catmint
Nerium oleander, oleander
Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco
Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort
Papaver somniferum, opium poppy
Pastinaca sativa, parsnip
Polygonatum odoratum, angular Solomon's seal
Prunus laurocerasus, cherry laurel
Pulsatilla vulgaris, pasque flower
Ranunculus acris, meadow buttercup
Rheum x hybridum, rhubarb
Rhododendron spp.
Rhus radicans, poison ivy
Ricinus communis, castor oil plant
Rosmarinus officinalis, rosemary
Rumex obtusifolius, broad-leaved dock
Ruta graveolens, rue
Salix alba, white willow
Salvia divinorum, sage
Scutellaria laterifolia, Virginian skullcap
Senecio jacobaea, ragwort
Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade
Solanum melongena, aubergine
Strychnos nux-vomica, poison nut
Symphoricarpos albus, snowberry
Symphytum spp., comfrey
Taxus baccata, yew
Toxicodendron radicans, poison ivy
Thevetia peruviana, yellow oleander
Urtica dioica, stinging nettle
Veratrum album, white hellebore
Verbascum olympicum, Greek mullein
Vinca major, greater periwinkle
Viscum album, mistletoe
Vitex agnus-castus, chaste tree