A look through the collections at the RHS Lindley Library shows that ivy is a plant with a rich history in our gardens and was used in a surprising number of ways
Ivy can be overlooked as a garden plant, often thought of as a last resort for dry, dark corners where nothing else will thrive. However, in recent years it has undergone a revival as wildlife-friendly gardeners appreciate its value as a habitat and a source of food for both birds and insects.
In the 18th century, gardeners used ivy to give an almost instant air of age and romance to their brand new ‘ruins’ and grottoes. By the Victorian period, it was a plant which had become firmly associated with notions of rustic charm.
Outdoors, ivy was used to drape from baskets to give a much sought-after rustic look. More unusual to modern eyes was its use as a rockery plant.
By the latter part of the 19th century, gardeners wanted their rockeries to be reasonably accurate representations of alpine landscape, but earlier in the century, a rockery could consist of bizarre creations encrusted with pottery, shells and ivy. In the summer, ivy was also a feature of elaborate flowerbed designs, carefully pegged into the ground to give a dark outer band to contrast with the bright summer bedding plants.
Surviving smoke and soot
Apart from its versatility, the fact that ivy was one of the few plants that could shrug off heavy Victorian pollution was a key factor in its success. By the middle of the 19th century the London ‘smokes’ were so bad that within a mile of St Paul’s, rose growers complained that they could only grow their favourite plant under bell jars. Ivy was untroubled by the smog, smoke and dust generated by factories, railways and hundreds of thousands of domestic coal fires.
Ivy was also a popular indoor plant with the Victorians. It was used in Wardian cases (sealed glass cases which formed microclimates), and it could also be found trailing over metalwork arches to frame sofas, tables or even picture frames.
Proof of the popularity of ivy with the Victorians can be found in the 19th century book collection at the RHS Lindley Library. Probably the best known work is Shirley Hibberd’s The Ivy, published in 1872 (with a second edition in 1893). This attractive book is crammed with ivy-inspired artwork, poetry, myths and legends.
Unfortunately, Hibberd was inclined to play fast and loose with nomenclature and there was confusion over identification and naming of ivies for decades.
After World War I, ivies were associated with old fashioned Victorian gardens and nurserymen listed fewer and fewer varieties. A notable exception was the firm of L R Russell of Richmond who maintained stocks of many of the Victorian kinds. The plant was to enjoy a revival as a house plant after the Second World War. Ivy is one of the easiest house plants to grow and in response to increasing demand, many new cultivars were imported into Britain from America. One of the leading firms was Thomas Rochford Ltd who turned their vast tomato producing nurseries over to pot plant production.
RHS members can borrow from the thousands of gardening books held in the Lindley Libraries – visit our online catalogue.
Even if you are not an RHS member, the Lindley Libraries are open to everyone and provide access to modern collections of books and journals on gardening and related topics. Our heritage collections of rare books, photographs, art and archives are accessible by appointment