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