Friday, 17 February 2012

A Promise Betrayed - Oh Sister

Now, ivy.  How few letters, what an odd collection, oddly ordered, oddly pronounced.

In this post-heavenly world ivy is better as clothing than a fig-leaf.  For a start, somehow you have to attach that leaf.  But ivy would be clinging and winding about you, following your contours, then billowing out, unexpectedly and concealingly.  You couldn't rely on it of course.  Just where you needed good cover you would find it had unaccountably avoided the area.  Surprisingly intense sources of infuriation and disappointment lurk amongst the layered leaves.

The plant is invasive in North America; there can be no doubt it's overstepped the mark there.  Here, in Europe, we have always lived with it but we can still get in a bit of a state about it; feeling it might tackle trees to the ground at any moment or enter our houses and be found eating our porridge and sleeping in our beds.  But it's also familiar and friendly,  a kindly blanket under trees, a haven for birds, a disguiser of miles of concrete and fencing, or worse, concrete fencing.

Here you see the snicket which leads to our door.  I've just sheared the ivy back again - it's only really made good cover in the last two years.  I promise you the ivy looks less squalid than the underlying combination fence, and it isn't as wide as it looks.

I think of ivy now because this is when you notice it everywhere.  Up trees, it must be a little higher than last year, although if it's contentedly in its flowering and fruiting stage it may well have settled and slowed, like a happy relationship.  On the ground, it will have advanced, or, if you managed to nip it back enough last year, it will have thickened.  Here it is, neatly managed around the basis of sago plants in  Nice, at the Chagall Museum.

A slightly strange marriage this. But it works, someone's looking after it.

So this is the time when I give all the ivy a good going over, checking growths and halting advances.  I weed it out where I sincerely don't want it - on garden walls (rather than ugly fences), and  houses.  You can always see where it's about to make its next leap, just jump in first.  Watch out for emerging hellebore heads and spring bulbs.  The latter tend to pierce through OK, pointiness being a useful asset.

The birds are just beginning to think about nesting, and the old flowering and fruiting heads of the ivy are finished.  Perfect timing, whip in there and knock the growths back.  You'll have to have another go later this year, but I like to leave that till August when birds forget procreation and before it flowers.  As a late pollen provider, it's a nicely-timed niche-filler.  But of course, for flowering, you have to have been able to let it follow its desire to ramp up something.  On the ground few cultivars flower - height and light is what they're looking for as they rush blindly about.  You might imagine you could root a cutting from a piece that's already in it's flowering mode, and it would continue.  Well you could, and it would.  But it's not easy, they would simply rather perish.

In my own garden I glory in several different ivies, acquired here and there, over the course of 15 years.  At least four of them came with me from a previous garden - I don't want any more or different ones; I have enough.  How often do we say that and absolutely mean it.  A couple could disappear and I'd be fine.  But you know what ivy's like - when she comes, she stays.

And that's the good feeling about ivy; evergreen, capable of extraordinary obedience to the gardener's whim, loves dry shade, no apparent pests, a general look of health and shine, virtually unkillable. Ivy promises so much, a shiny, malleable, native.  Surely she will always do what you want, as in the picture below from Morville Hall.  What terrible sin would you have to commit to alienate an ivy?

I'm creeping up on the song here.   Sending out my feelers, hoisting myself up around its feet.  I look harmless and small but my plan is exponential growth within the next couple of years.  Suddenly you won't be able to get me off it; I'll be so deeply connected and intertwined.

So the song is Oh, Sister from Desire, and it has always seemed absolutely clear to me.  My interpretation has not shifted over the years.  But I would say that something else has - not quite compassion or understanding, more a kind of rueful acceptance that yes indeed, people can feel and think this way.  Who hasn't lashed out with guilty rage, upset and arrogantly blaming?  Do hurt feelings ever excuse wrongheadedness?  We'll consider this troubling conjunction in a minute.

First a different conjunction, ivy and an old fence.  Years ago, we called that a fedge.  The idea was that the wood inside would rot away and the ivy would continue, like a hedgey fence, or a fencey hedge.  Now I see that fedge has other new-fangled meanings, one of which is a living willow fence.  Very nice I know but I see ivy has lost its cachet  and had its party trick stolen.  Never mind, potential ivy fedges are everywhere in suburban gardens.  Just shear them over about twice a year, they seem to last for ever, so long as you stay alert and committed. Repeated cutting seems to slow some types down.  This one is so-called parsley ivy - crinkly-edged leaves.  Not necessarily an asset.

So I sincerely believe that ivy is a wonderful plant.  Not perhaps the stripey yellow and green sort, with its big flabby leaves (colchica dentata variegata, Paddy's Pride).  Not that one called Gold Child, with red stems and sharply marked little leaves.  I like a dark green roundish leaf, shining with health, in the right spot, doing the right thing.  Try hedera azorica Pico for real roundness of leaf.  Can't show you mine properly, it's been dug up and lies sadly in pots.

The silver variegated kind merges into a rather charming grey, intricate close to, quietly abundant from afar.  My own example swarms with birds and its host, a purple lilac, survives and just outgrows it enough.  Above you see it in winter, and then from the side, with rosa mutabilis through it, in summer.  This collection makes an excellent high screen in a difficult corner, with every attribute.

But perhaps I'm just wrong to be so complacent.  I know that in one garden where I work the inexorable advance of  ordinary ivy is smothering everything in its path, and a major blitz is needed.  The removal of heavy overhead shade has robbed it of its shine and made it faster and more ferocious.  Something Must Be Done, as I think Lenin may have said.  Wrongheadedly?

Here's a garden where preparations have been made for the complete control of ivy.  It's one of those little Dutch show gardens, offering education and example.  Promises to stay attentive seem likely to be kept.

Well, that song.  The protagonist speaks of his "sister".  Surely a reference to the Song of Solomon, where the sister is the spouse.  So this character is referring to his wife, who is also his sister in creation, through the eyes of a fatherly and powerful God. The couple were in Eden, their marriage vows created them anew there.  Now it's all going wrong for she's breaking her promise and won't let him sleep with her.  He's telling her that she's taking a big risk - if she carries on like that, he'll leave.

Now that's a bit brutal isn't it?  Not just my account, or what the protagonist is saying to her, but brutal about the bottom line - marriage as a duty, not subject to changes of feeling or loss of affection.  You can depend on your marriage to give you what you want, whatever bad thing you do, for promises have been made and God is the overseer.

 Despite its assumption of power, the song is childlike in the depth of its sense of betrayal and hurt.  "But, you promised."  The singer's innocence about the true value of a promise between two people is touchingly, brutally fundamentalist. 

This song is completely sealed, the singer tips no knowing wink and he seems to be as he says. So it feels like there is searing honesty in his account.  Almost unacceptably so, for no-one comes out well, and there is no comfort.  And I love it for its honesty.  It blows the doors off.   

But what has this to do with ivy? Well, ivy's not a plant, it's a relationship.  Adapting to its host, depending and suffocating, it's loving grasp is a strain.  The host may cope, growing strongly upwards, the ivy may slow down enough to allow the happy longevity of the couple.  They're not symbiotic, or parasitic, they're closely involved independent entities.  The ivy does not consider the ability of its host to endure.  Like the protagonist of the song, it takes a lot for granted.  Sometimes it can stand alone as its support crumbles; sometimes it, too, crashes to the ground.

The character in the song feels cornered and threatened.  As he lashes out with threats that he will walk out, he is aware that his appeal to a higher authority is unlikely to work.  He's close to absurd as he makes his clumsy bludgeoning attempts to control the situation.  As gardeners we can be too, when plants elude our efforts to control them,  betraying our hopes and expectations.  And we can become excessively enraged and obsessed, hating a thing that is what it is. With ivy, it is up to us to stay close and observant, ready with attention.  It's no good always dancing off with the bright beauties, have a care for the quiet background, which holds everything together.

Just to finish, here are two heaps of an ivy called Little Diamond.  I planted them when we came here, tiny sprigs.  Even now, no good for nectar in November, like the big one, but reliably covering a very ugly concrete edging.  Ivy works just as well to disguise pond-liner.  Ivy will cover stuff up - that's what it does.  No good expecting it to behave against its nature, whatever promises you may have extracted.


  1. Jane, I have been looking at the woods behind my patio, waiting for the ferns to reappear, and wonder if I should be touching the vies and winter berry plants. I kind of feel as though maybe leaving it alone is the best idea. It is wild, and I do not know if there is poison oak or poison ivy in there! This will be my first full winter to spring here and I am full of eager anticipation. It loos as though there is some agapantha plants in the photo at the Chagall Museum. This was really a lovely piece. Thank you as always.

  2. Hello Caregiver - your wild wood sounds almost over-exciting! I'd be looking to create a little path, a journey through it and back to the patio. But I'd be alarmed by the poisoners, having absolutely no experience of gardening with either. I know poison ivy is some sort of rhus, not an ivy at all, and that its leaves keep changing. Sounds very difficult and puts our European ivies into perspective! So glad you enjoyed the piece.

    1. A great idea. As I have just finished reading the Secret Garden, for the first time, I think a path is a wonderful plan. And it will help me rehabilitate my body and refresh my over anxious mind. I will let you know as soon as the Ivy appears. I found some bulbs begin to rise with this warm winter on Thursday. And I posted a very unusual tree on my blog last night. I think if you click my name it will take you to my profile and the blog name. Thanks for the idea and the wonderful blogs!

  3. I love ivy. I know people hate it and moan and cut it back from gutterings and think it is killing their houses, but lots of stuff won't grow here at all and ivy loves it in the dark dry places under the trees where nothing grows. It gets dense and full of life. From my kitchen window you can see a wren coming in an out of a waterfall of ivy and a vole nicking fallen seed from the bird feeders.