Autumn treasure 1: Ivy flowers

Occold window1/10/2018 I have never much liked ivy – except when it radiates sparrow chatter – and I don’t know many people who do. There is only one context in which I think it has any aesthetic appeal: growing, spider-like, up the outside of an old church wall or door. But I know those conserving the buildings must be at constant war with it.

Six years ago, when I first started walking along the South West Coast Path, I had an entirely new experience of ivy. Almost simultaneously I heard a loud buzzing and noticed a strong smell of honey. I looked ahead and saw a long stretch of hemispherical yellow-green flowers on both sides of the footpath. They were covered in bees, wasps, bumblebees and hoverflies. Butterflies were also fluttering about them.

It took me a moment to identify the flowers as those of the ivy. I was amazed that such a dull, troublesome plant could produce such a magnificent display of flowers, and that I hadn’t noticed them until now. They weren’t much to look at and didn’t even seem to have any petals, but the smell and the noise stopped me in my tracks. Such a hum of insect activity is unusual at this time of year, so they must be a hugely important food source for insects when most other flowers have gone.

CommaSince then I have looked out for ivy flowers with a new gratitude for the generous provision of food for all these creatures. This year, starting my walk along the same coast path shortly after the equinox, I hoped there would still be some in flower. As with lime blossom, I found I had to look closely to see if they were still in bud, or if they had already gone to seed, although the presence of insects immediately indicated that plenty were still out. I was glad of the opportunity to photograph a comma butterfly, which I had wanted to do all summer. It was so busy with its meal that it wasn’t bothered by me or the camera, and I waited patiently for it to open its wings. Red admiralI could tell it was a pristine specimen, but it only allowed me a few glimpses of the beauty it was guarding so closely. (Photo above right: comma. Left: red admiral.)

It is true I don’t want ivy growing on my house (it has even made its way indoors in one corner) or on living trees in my garden, but now I try to remember its great redeeming feature. It grows on the dead willow by the pond, along with honeysuckle and brambles – the climbing rose I planted as a child is long dead – and I am happy for it to be there. It provides nest cover for birds, and every year I look forward to September when I might find all the insects in my garden feasting on it.