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Ivy on trees… kill it or cherish it?

Matthew Chatfield
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At this time of year our thoughts turn to holly and ivy… and sometimes we encounter one of the ‘old chestnuts’ for debate that just seem to go on and on. Is ivy on a tree a good thing or a bad thing? Should we take ivy off trees, or leave it on? The world seems to be divided sharply into two on this matter. The Ranger, for what it’s worth, is firmly in the ivy retention camp. Ivy (c) ScoobygirlI well remember a Christmastime some 15 years ago when on my rounds in the woodland I managed I encountered the work of an ivy vigilante. Some clever dick had gone along the woodland ride and cut about 10cm out of the big stems of ivy on the oak trees, killing dozens of ivy plants. I was furious, and for years afterwards the dead ivy lurked in the oak branches, accusingly. Of course, it grew back, but that’s not the point. Ivy provides good shelter and food for wildlife, it is a native plant, and it does not harm trees. No, it doesn’t. A weak tree may succumb to ivy infestation, but this is because it was on the way out anyway. It’s also nigh on impossible to get dead ivy out of a tree.

So why do people hate it so? My theory is that it’s a gardening thing. Of course, in a formal situation, such as a park or garden, it’s quite proper to take ivy off trees. Indeed, because ivy is so successful as a plant it can certainly be seen as a weed in some contexts. So gardeners and those who like tidy gardens, like to remove it. The problem comes when they extend this principle to natural and managed woodlands, and assume that ivy elsewhere is also a problem. Not so. I’m happy for gardeners to pick off as much ivy as they like – in a garden. But if ivy is a weed in one context, it cannot be assumed that it will be so in all others. So please, if your secateur trigger finger is itchy, don’t go into your local woodland and cut the ivy stems imagining you’re improving matters. Clip off a few jolly ivy boughs instead, decorate your home this Christmas with this fine, festive plant, and learn to enjoy it in its place.

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

73 thoughts on “Ivy on trees… kill it or cherish it?

  • is qite obvious that,apat from one persons comments,the rest are just insne. There are quite a few comments that i can deduce,are written, and with the same typos and bad English -that they are the same person??? What little minds. get a hobby I red NO facts at all. just wild biassed opinions. God help the huan race and nature

  • John O-C

    Delighted to read that are other folks who are distressed to see magnificent trees being overwhelmed by great hawsers of ivy. It never used to be seen in such spreading profusion – the sheer staggering quantity is something fairly new. I’ve heard all the apologies for the dreadful stuff, and concluded that no matter how one feels about anything, there are always others who want to tell you you’re wrong. My remedy has been a simple unilateral one over the past few years – I/we carry a high quality folding pruning saw, and we simply cut through as many as we can. Out little saw can easily cut through 4″ ivy main stems. To see a 300-year-old oak (or whatever) recover its stately shape within a couple of years is a great privilege. It’s our version of ‘service to trees’. If others disagree or disprove they can just NOT do as we do. I’d love to know if there’s are teams out there, actually DOING something about ivy. I do occasionally come across others’ cut stems, so clearly others are working at it. We need an Anti Ivy Army (the AIA). I don’t hate ivy in moderation, but I DO love trees. They are my priority.

    • Andrew

      Everywhere I go, I see the destruction of ivy that overwhelms and eventually weakens and kills trees. Everywhere I go I free magnificent trees from this killing weed.

      Beautiful Oaks, Hawthorne, Ash, Wild plum are saved and become beautiful again.
      Anyone who thinks that eventually ivy does not kill trees, has their eyes closed to their surroundings or aren’t in the countryside and woodlands to see the trees brought down by ivy. Ivy doesn’t have to kill trees to live.

      It is a disgrace that bone idle woodland trusts in the UK pretend ivy isn’t a tree killer.

    • Paula Sunshine

      OMG, at last, people who speak sense about this issue. I have lived in the countryside most of my 55 years and can say with total assurance, IVY DOES KILL TREES AND HEDGES. For God’s sake, look at the evidence. We are losing beautiful trees to this monster being allowed by idiots (like The Woodland Trust) to smother our countryside. They must be so busy sitting in their offices, they are not getting out to see this for themselves. Farmers used to do yearly culling if ivy to keep it off the trees, and local authorities too, now nobody is doing anything and trees all around me are dying, and not being replaced either. So I am going out with my clippers doing it myself. These trees are not too old, or diseased, they are being smothered by ivy, blocking light out (from ground plants too), winding itself around branches, restricting growth, just like a cable tie would, killing the tree branch by branch. I challenge the doubters to come for a walk with me and I will prove what I am saying. Ivy does kill trees and hedges, exterminating every hedge plant until it wins the battle, then it falls over, taking the dead hedge with it, leaving you with no hedge at all. Yes, the bees love ivy flowers, but that is no reason to allow this one plant to dominate our countryside. My motto, “SAVE A TREE, CUT IVY.”

  • Andy Fox

    More confused now! We have it wrapped around two large ash trees which are leaning and some branches have died( not all)…
    However I did cut the base roots of large ivy on my weeping birches at the back: great kindling when dried and dead : and the birches look revitalised.
    Do we leave the Ash trees alone?

  • Carol Larson

    English ivy, hedera helix, is listed as a noxious weed in Oregon and Washington State. It creates ivy deserts that do not allow for diversity of plants needed by a healthy ecology. We’ve seen many trees pulled down by the weight of ivy and seen it cover acres. It sets seed when it grows into the upper canopy of trees so at the very least, we try and keep it from getting too high.
    Ruins a tree’s figure, I think.

  • W. Porter

    I live in Surrey and have literally seen hundreds of trees, young and very mature ones, falling victims to ivy.
    They get covered completely until there is nothing left of the tree. It’s like slowly being strangled. Nobody seems to care, there is no-one cutting any ivy down and we a literally losing thousands of trees every year. The Forestry Commission and Woodland Trust say it does not harm trees. Why don’t they take a walk round the Surrey Countryside? The evidence is all there! Why does the Environment Agency not do something? Is it because all the bureaucrats are sitting in their offices and don’t go out and look for themselves ????

  • simon cox

    Where I live in Waterlooville in Hampshire, can it really be sensible to allow beautiful hundred plus year old Oaks in a slightly isolated situation on the edge of a busy village to become covered and strangled by ivy until they are damaged or dead?…….

    ..because of how the area has now evolved, once they are gone they’re gone…they won’t be replaced – seems a terrible shame and misplaced thinking to consciously allow it for the sake of some simple maintenance/management of the ivy by authorities….

  • its an emotive subject! one thing i observe here is the lack of woodland management for one reason or another.lots of people mention the old hundreds of year old trees dying and falling becuase of the ivy strangling the trees. In a good biodiverse woodland you would have a mixture of old and new and medium age trees Everyone loves a nice big old tree me for one,but to get there takes years and where are the new trees that need to take over when an old giant comes down.
    We used to graze woodland as well as coppice,pollard and certain areas would be fenced of to regenerate .I was asked recently to look at a friends woodland who wanted to coppice and was shocked to here that he had to many big trees to do so succesfully,and would require some thinning.The same goes for ivy it needs to be managed. The British countryside was mostly created by us man .Its the lack of good habitat woodland management that is creating the problem and why ivy is being blamed for the demise of our woodland its not the fault of the ivy ,but ours.

  • Carole Barsby

    I have had different opinions on my fir tree that is a big part of my garden. Its obvioulsy about 25 + years old and is about 30ft. It does have any ivy growing up it which I have kept under control – growing up to about 20ft for wild life. Has this ivy harmed my tree as it seems to be sheding all its pine needles worse than ever this last couple of years and producing cones – its quite obvious that the tree is in trouble or its had its day – can you please advise?!

    Carole BT – Telford

  • tom reynolds

    what is the most important thing about this debate? let the ivy flurish or keep any particular tree free from it to enhance the natural beauty of say, a silver birch.wildlife will find it’s own way i am sure. i just dont see an argument to ‘possibly kill’ any tree in the name of wildlife. it is all precious.

  • Pete from Hove

    Fascinating and long running debate! My daughter asked me if ivy harms trees after we had witnessed a lot of human activity to tidy up the lovely patch of wild(ish) woodland near where we live. The self-proclaimed ‘Friends of the Copse’ are, with council help, tidying everything up. Clearing up the tangles and cutting through the ivy seemed more like vandalism to me so thought I’d find out if it was good or ill.

    This debate has shown me very clearly that many humans think that nature needs us to keep it as it should be. This is surely arrogant – nature does what it does and we should appreciate it. The relationships between plant and animals, the cycles of rot and rebirth are nature.

    Forcing the oak to stand alone, divorced from its natural friends and foes, is equivalent to keeping a gorilla in a cage where we can appreciate our mastery and control and see nothing of nature.

    All the meddlers in this debate share an almost racist preference of one life form over another. I say let’s live together in harmony, stop meddling and appreciate the interconnected glory of nature.

  • I cannot agree that Ivy does not harm trees. I travel every day to rural areas within 11 English Midland Counties and travelling through literally hundreds and hundreds of country lanes, seeing the forests,woods and copses of the shire counties. Every Autumn, when the yearly high winds come,and every time I see trees down, either in the wood, or lying across the road (in some places killing motorists), it is ALWAYS the ones in the batch that are totally smothered with Ivy, not the clear ones.
    I have been doing this vocation for 34 years. It is this observation for over three decades that has confirmed my standpoint, that Ivy IS detrimental to healthy trees.

    • Matthew Coate

      This is what we call a false cause fallacy, of the “cum hoc, ergo propter hoc” variety. In recent years, the formula “correlation does not imply causation” has become popular, and this is in reference to the same fallacy.

  • Landseer

    Thanks ESS. The ivy (AKA oak) tree is to the south of my garden so casts an evil shade from mid-autumn to mid-spring. Your encouraging words have helped enforce my resolution to exercise my chain-saw.

  • In our large garden we have preserved trees being taken over by ivy. Today we have been taking the ivy out. If something isn’t done soon the trees will go and we will have to look at ivy only. Already some of the lower branches have no leaves. Now we are busting the ivy and it feels good. The ivy vines in places are about 11.5cm, so about 30 years old.

    In the wild it may be different. I own an uncultivated island in Panama. There various vines and trees live together in a very natural original state as it is 25 acres of rainforest which will have been there since the islands were formed. There I am happy to leave vines and trees and trees blown over in intense winds rotting on the forest floor and the like all working well together.

    British ivy has lost its animal predators and can take over gardens (and indeed many forests) if left to its own devices.

    Even worse during our garden clearance I find the rhodedendrum, that nasty taking all in its path plant introduced I think by the Victorians. I have done large amounts of cutting down those branches today too.

    I accept that today’s work means that it will take nearly 2 years for all the ivy up the trees to die away and it will look brown and decayed for a long time but ultimately we will prevail over it and I could almost feel the trees thanking me. My sons and I found massive stems ivy taking our entire weight, we hung like Tarzan from the vicious creepers. We took as much as we could remove by ladders. We had to sore the worst of it off and will be vigilant to keep it off.

    There is more to do but it was a job well done. Every morning I wake in my bed room to the sight of the massive preserved trees and I want that sight in 40 years’ time. I am their guardian and today I killed one of their enemies.

  • Susan Parker

    By the way, how do I join the Anti-Ivy League? Do give details!!

  • Susan Parker

    In this discussion the following information might be interesting. In Ireland ivy infestation is recognised as a problem which damages the trees, without the politically correct comments. Furthermore interestingly they note that browsing animals which used to eat the ivy are now reduced, and this has had an impact.

    It should perhaps also be recognised that when trees were more economically important, woodland was actively managed, and so infestation by ivy was less acceptable.

    See this website for a technical and educated response:

  • Woodland Walker

    I am against Ivy in woodland or almost any other area for that matter. When I was a child I grew up in a small welsh village that had a wonderful woodland area. I have been back in my adult years watch to catch just some of my youth back to find the place nothing like I remeber paths over grown with Ivy tree just a mass of ivy the whole place looks unkept and nothing like the area I once played. I admit I cleared a fair amount of Ivy in a few hours and was pleased with my efforts and will continue to do so until I can no longer manage to pull if from the ground. I do not mind the Ivy for cover for insects and othe small woodland animals but as people keep saying these tree’s are hundreds of years old how did they cope before we ‘helped out’. well my answer is simple we loved out woodland and used it for food wood and all maner of thing until the last few years and now they become neglected and plants once used for fire wood and kinderlin are no longer needed and grow unrestriced I say if you want to pull some ivy from the path or clear from young sapplings go ahead. and if you can throw some wild flower seeds around in its place and have a burst of colour for years to come

    • Melanie

      Dear Woodland Walker, please do not scatter wild flower seeds willy nilly on your walks. It is not a massive back garden out there. …It is nature and certain plants grow in certain areas of the country. If you have to ‘throw’ your wild flower seeds around, carefully select those that are indigenous to the area!!

  • Alan, that has already started. The railway team are felling trees in my area (Herts) and I asked them why. Because they are unsafe with ivy and may cause property damage if they fall I was told. Trees with no ivy were left with just a tidy up of the crown.

  • Alan Barrett

    I have not seen so much ivy before. Maybe conditions are ideal for the plant at the moment.

    But if what I am saying is true and more and more trees are covered in ivy then surely at some point councils will chop down the trees for health and safety reasons.

    And if they do we will lose a lot of trees, as they surely do not have the resources to tackle the ivy itself.

    I predict that we will lose a vast amount of trees and bushes which run as green strips along roads and railway lines.

  • Alan Barrett

    I don’t think it can be denied that ivy is proliferating. It also cannot be dedied that it will kill the tree it is infesting.

    Looking around woodlands and the trees and shrubs along roads or railway lines, I would suggest that withing not many years the whole lot will have to be felled. In my view this is impending disaster and we desperately need to spend money, which of course is now not available, clearing this super weed.

    We are going to be treeless pretty soon.

    The Ranger responds: then why are we not treeless now?


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