The many faces of ivy

It's the "do anything" holiday plant

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The many faces of ivy

Young ivy trails gracefully.

Christina Schmidhofer

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Whether trailing along a bookshelf, spilling out of a hanging basket, or covering the soil around a potted palm, ivy is one of the easiest, most successful plants.

It reacts to too much shade by sending out a tendril toward whatever light it can find. It grows willingly on any type of support - a fence, wreath, or wire topiary frame. Its leaves come in hundreds of shapes, from birdfoot to heart, fan to curly - each overlaid with colors that range from solid green to green with snowy white spots or pale yellow edges.

Stems can be green or red; on a few varieties, leaves blush pink in cold weather.

Ivies have a mythical history: Both Bacchus and Nero were said to have worn ivy wreaths, and Nero wore his around his head while Rome burned. Today, these graceful vining plants are so ubiquitous that many people overlook them.

So take a second look at the sprig of ivy that trails out of your holiday flower basket. Its intricate leaf pattern may startle you - at least until you realize that horticulturists have been improving this plant for centuries. The breeder's art has combined with ivy's natural tendency to mutate, resulting in a breathtaking array of gold, green, cream, gray, and white leaf patterns. All make handsome topiaries during the holidays or versatile container plants anytime.

Ivy's ages and stages

In its juvenile stage, English ivy runs and roots with all the reckless abandon of youth. It can quickly become a lovely trailing pot plant, a dense ground cover, or the leafy hide for a fat topiary elephant.

Unpruned, most varieties eventually reach the adult stage (except in cold-winter climates). They then change leaf form, stop making aerial roots, stop climbing, and start flowering and producing black berries that are edible for birds but toxic to people.

At any stage, ivy is usually happiest in places that get partial to full shade. Given monthly doses of liquid fertilizer and enough water to keep the soil from drying out, ivies grow well. Mites and worms can occasionally damage them, but ivies are trouble-free in most areas.

There's a fair chance that the ivy you buy for your mantel will send out a shoot that doesn't look like the mother plant. It could be a simple reversion - a change from variegated to solid green - or it might be a new pattern that's more beautiful than the parent. If you like what you see, propagate it.

GARDEN TIP

To root ivy, take a 6- to 8-inch sprig, strip off the lower leaves, and plant the cutting in a pot full of loose, moist planting mix. Put it on a windowsill and roots will form within a month or two. Ivy also roots easily in a glass of water, but water roots break easily. Transplant them with care.

PLANTS AND INFORMATION

A variety of ivies (including most of the ones shown here) is available at nurseries, florists, and supermarkets throughout the West. Or you can order plants by mail from Heritage International (805/484-5262) or Samia Rose Topiary (760/436-0460 or www.srtopiary.com).

To learn more about ivies, join the American Ivy Society ($20 per year; Box 2123, Naples, FL 34106-2123; www.ivy.org).

You can also find out more from The Ivy Book, by Suzanne Warner Pierot (Garden by the Stream, Willow, NY, 1995; $15.95; 845/688-5318).

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