COMMON OR ENGLISH IVY: MEDICINAL BENEFITS OF HEDERA HELIX, USES AND HISTORY: IVY LEAF TISANE
There are several types of ivy, one being ground ivy which, as its name suggests, grows on the ground, providing ground cover. However this English Ivy or Common ivy grows up walls and trees, only flowering (in late October until December and then producing berries in the following spring) when it is firmly established and has support, for example when it has reached the top of a wall and can bush out. It is an evergreen and for the Druids was a sacred plant, the female counterpart of the masculine holly. The Druids used it to bring dreams which foretold the future. Together with mistletoe and holly it is traditionally used to decorate houses at Christmas time. This is a pagan tradition which stood the test of time even though the Church banned such decorations. This ancient verse illustrates the pagan roots of the ivy:-
On Christmass Ivy
At Christmass men do ivy always get
And in each corner of the house it set;
But why do they then use that Bacchus-weed?
Because they mean, then, Bacchus-like to feed.”
This refers to the fact that Bacchus, or Dionysus, his Greek counterpart, was depicted wearing wreaths of ivy leaves on his head. The Bacchanalian rites were orgies and feasts, and the Christmas meal is probably a throwback to these times. People gorge themselves on as much rich food as they can in Britain at Christmas time, so the orgies tend not to take place anymore. Its associations with Bacchus are strong, as it grows plentifully at the reputed home of Bacchus, Nyssa. The ivy leaves also formed a poet laureate’s crown. Ivy leaves when bruised and gently boiled in wine were thought to remove the effects of a hangover by the ancient Greeks. They would also tie a vine of ivy leaves around their foreheads to prevent intoxication from drinking wine.
Ancient Greek priests would present a newly married couple with an ivy wreath as a symbol of fidelity and steadfastness and the binding together of the couple. There is an old Celtic poem which begins “The sweet harp of Wales” which also speaks of its binding qualities.
“And golden mistletoe I’ll bring thee,
With ivy-bands to bind it there…”
In Britain an ivy bush was a symbol for a tavern, and many pubs still bear the ancient name of “The Ivy Bush”, hence the saying, “Good wine needs no bush”. In other words good wine needs no advertising.
With other evergreen plants, ivy has had its place at funerals, and it has not always been recommended as a medicine; Dioscorides writing in the first century AD believed that it caused sterility. Culpepper tells us “It is an enemy to the nerves and sinews taken inwardly, but most excellent taken outwardly.” It is a member of the ginseng family, and has been used in traditional medicine both in Europe and Asia since ancient times. The twigs of the ivy, boiled in butter were a remedy for sunburn. It has also been used to treat arthritis, burns, cancer, coughs, as an expectorant and decongestant of the lungs, for gallbladder problems, gout, inflammation, lice and other parasites, scabies, skin problems disorders of the spleen, nerve damage (neuropathy), jaundice, rheumatic diseases, duodenal ulcers and whooping cough.
The Physicians of Myddfai (from the 8th century AD to the early 19th century) recommended a mixture of the “inner bark of the ivy and the leaves of the honeysuckle, bruising them well together in a mortar, expressing them through a clean linen cloth into both nostrils, the patient lying on his back” for relief from toothache.
If you want to make a tisane from the leaves they need to be dried first and you should only use 0.3 grams in a cup of boiling water. Ivy is poisonous if taken in large doses, and should not be used for children or pregnant or lactating women.
The leaves contain chromium, manganese and zinc and modern medical research has shown that they may help reduce blood glucose levels for treatment in cases of diabetes. Studies have also shown that an extract from the leaves can help children with asthma and adults with chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. Animal studies have shown that the leaf extract may have anti-cancer and antioxidant properties. The German Commission E has approved the leaf extract for use in the treatment of coughs and chronic inflammatory bronchial conditions as an expectorant, and it is often used in cough medicines. The leaf contains saponins and the alkaloid emetine which induces vomiting and increases mucus in the lungs, but as the ivy leaf only contains small amounts of this, it may explain why it has been traditionally used as an expectorant. The saponins appear to be responsible for preventing spasms in the bronchial area. It has been found that ivy leaf extract is effective in increasing oxygen in the lungs and the recommended dose of the extract for children with asthma is 25 drops per day and 50 for adults with bronchitis as it is an effective anti-inflammatory in bronchial conditions. A wash made from the leaf has been used to treat yeast infections such as candida, and a cream for external use is made from ivy leaves, horsetail and Lady’s Mantle to reduce, but not eliminate stretch marks.
Ivy is native to Europe, and North and Central Asia, but it grows in many countries, although not the Hedera helix variety. Ground ivy never flowers, so only the Common ivy has berries for the birds to feast on. Its flowers do not have any fragrance, but they do have nectar for bees, although there aren’t many around when it actually blooms. If you were born between September 30th and October 27th, according to the old Celtic calendar you were born under the ivy’s influence as this was the month of “Gort” or ivy.