Wednesday, August 22, 2012

His Crowne in Summer

A recent blog on my visit to St. Charles included a photo
of a neatly trimmed, low ivy hedge.
From time to time, I think about how attractive it was 
and contemplate creating a similar feature 
along the northwest side of my house.
Right now, it's still a daydream.

But English ivy is definitely another of my favorites,
partly because of its evergreen leaves,
and partly because it makes everything it covers
seem softer and more refined.

Despite my enchantment with it,
common ivy, hedera helix, is alternately made the villain of the garden 
or celebrated as bringing to it elegance.
I suspect ivy's critics can't see past its reputation for killing trees,
destroying tuck pointing in brick walls and chimneys,
and harboring vermin. 
(To that last accusation, I would like to say 'ick.')
But ivy is like anything potent. It needs moderation.

Here volunteer ivy covers the trunk of our river birch tree:

According to Alice M. Coats in her book "Garden Shrubs and their Histories,"
ivy has a long association with wine and ale houses
because ivy wood was said to be able to separate good wine from bad.
Perhaps this is why Bacchus, the god of drunken revelry,
is often depicted wearing an ivy vine as "his crowne in summer."
(cited in Coats from Bullein's Bulwark of Defence, 1562)

I'm always impressed with Coats' research skills,
and she didn't disappoint with her section on ivy.
Coats explains that in the mid- to late-19th century,
ivy enjoyed unparalleled popularity as the mark of elegance and good taste,
and as the best way to bring a full measure of whimsy into one's home.

She mainly cites John Clauidus Loudon, the Scottish botanist.
Loudon's descriptions include ivy vines being pulled through the windows
so they can climb indoors to form arches, to climb banisters,
or to be planted in small pots behind paintings 
so the plants could trail down the frames.
One "over-the-top" recommendation 
was for ivy to be trained to form a canopy over a piano
so the musician could perform from inside a green arbor.
Another idea was that ivy could be planted to climb a frame 
and form a living fireplace screen.

I have to admit, the fireplace screen idea interests me.
Certainly these would all be great conversation starters when guests came to call.
It would be great if my thumb were green enough 
to pull off indoor arbors or living screens.
On the other hand,
 I'm afraid that with so many spiders haunting our outdoors,
encouraging ivy to grow through the window
 might just be the invitation they were looking for to move inside.

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