Folklore in My Garden: Ivy

Creeping on, where time has been,
A rare old plant is the Ivy green.

Charles Dickens

My favorite houseplant is ivy. I love its slim, graceful tendrils in a window, or wound about a fanciful topiary form. It adds a delicate touch to flower and plant arrangements, cascading over the edge. Ivy has a lengthy folklore history. In antiquity, it was sacred to the gods of wine, Dionysus and Bacchus (I love wine, too!), and for that reason it was grown along the facades of inns and pubs. A trail of ivy leaves placed in the path of a drunkard was supposed to sober him up.

Ivy also is said to bring good fortune to women of the household, and if grown on the walls of the house it would ward off witchcraft and the evil eye. A girl could place some leaves in her pocket and go for a walk. The first young man to cross her path would be her future husband. But picking even one leaf from ivy growing on a church brought illness. Ivy leaf vinegar, however, was used to protect oneself from Plague, and if applied to the toes, could cure corns. Children with whooping cough would improve if provided with an ivy wood bowl to eat and drink from. Men, if you’re suffering with hair loss, wearing an ivy wreath may put an end to your woes.

As ancient carols tell us, ivy is strongly associated with Christmas. It was not supposed to be brought into the house before the holidays, and if it touched the mantlepiece or came in attached to fire wood, bad luck would follow. In holly and ivy rituals, the holly is the masculine aspect and the ivy feminine. In some areas, the last wheat sheaf harvested would be bound with ivy, dressed in finery, and paraded home as the Ivy Girl to bring another year of prosperity. Sometimes she was given to the farmer who was last to finish his harvest. If a leaf is placed in water on New Year’s Eve and left until Twelfth Night, its condition would foretell the coming year’s fortune. If green, it predicted happiness; if withered, illness and bad fortune. If rotten, it warned of impending death .

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