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What is Hedera Helix?

By Erica Stratton
Updated Feb 24, 2024
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Hedera helix is the scientific name for common ivy, also called English Ivy. It grows in almost every country, from Europe to Asia. Commonly cultivated as an ornamental plant, ivy is also considered an invasive species. Its berries, mildly poisonous to humans, have a long history of being used in homeopathic medicine.

As an ornamental plant, hedera helix is cultivated for several reasons. It can provide romantic beauty to a garden, and its thick weave of stems can create a shelter for birds and other animals. A gardener has several different species of ivy to choose from, each which provides a different color, leaf shape, or growth rate.

Hedera helix produces berries, which many animals, such as birds, use for food in the winter. Dogs, cattle, sheep, and humans often react badly to exposure to common ivy, however. Ingestion of the bitter berries can cause difficulty breathing, comas, vomiting, and death. Exposure to the leaves can also cause skin lesions in some people, such as with poison ivy.

This plant has other negative qualities besides its poison. Its speed of growth and the plant's tendency to smother other plants has made it an invasive species in Australia. Even a plant cultivated in a garden can spoor and spread beyond its boundaries, and start to take over the surrounding wilderness.

In some places, hedera helix has spread so thickly over a stretch of countryside that it chokes out all other growth. Such a thorough plant invasion is often called an "ivy desert." Kudzu, an ivy species native to Australia, has gained notoriety for engulfing entire fields and abandoned houses.

The leaves, berries or essential oil of hedera helix are often used in homeopathic medicine. The reasoning behind homeopathic medicine is "like cures like," meaning that if an herbal remedy causes specific reactions in a healthy person, it should be used to treat those disorders in an unhealthy person. Ivy has been used throughout history as an alternative treatment for various lung and throat disorders, such as bronchitis. It has also been prescribed as a wash for irritated eyes.

The use of ivy in medical treatments, even though it has a long history, has not undergone extensive research. There is some debate about proper dosage or treatment. Hedera helix is not recommended as a home remedy, due to its toxicity, and should only be used under the supervision of a qualified practitioner.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon357132 — On Dec 02, 2013

I have a flock of sheep and was told years ago by a young girl who was helping me tend to a dying ewe to give her ivy as she would not eat or drink. It was miraculous. Not only did the sick ewe live, but she went on to produce many lambs for years to come.

If I ever have a sheep that won't eat and looks listless, the first thing I do is to pick some fresh ivy to offer. I have asked several vets what the properties are and why sheep eat holly and ivy, but no one can tell me so far!

By bythewell — On Jan 14, 2012

I love the look of ivy, particularly on an old house, but you have to be careful about growing it. It can damage the cladding if you aren't careful.

I don't think it's too bad if you have a rock exterior, but not many people do. And it grows very fast.

I know in quite a few places it's considered a pest and tends to take over the countryside. It's a shame, because it's so pretty.

By irontoenail — On Jan 14, 2012

@browncoat - It was once used as a cough medicine I think, back in the old days, but I don't think it's effective enough to bother now, when there are other herbs that do a much better job.

And ivy isn't just poisonous, you also have to watch out in case you have an allergy to it. Remember that just because the first time you are exposed to something you don't have a reaction doesn't mean you aren't allergic.

Sometimes it takes several exposures before anything happens.

Although a good rule of thumb for ivy is that if you are allergic to carrots you are likely going to react to ivy (on your skin) as well. They share the chemical which causes the reaction.

By browncoat — On Jan 13, 2012

I have to say, with all respect to people who believe in it, there is no real evidence that ivy does anything at all to help people out as a medicine.

The only way people really use it is as a homeopathic remedy, and that's pretty much been shown to be nothing but a placebo effect. The quantities of the plant included in the remedy are too small to do anything.

It basically comes from the idea of vaccinations, that adding a little bit of something which causes the symptoms you're suffering from will kick start your immune system, but if you are already suffering from whatever the condition is and your immune system hasn't already kicked in, adding a bit more poison isn't going to do anything.

And ivy can be dangerous to mess around with, as it really is poisonous.

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