English Ivy Blues

By Teo Spengler | May 27, 2022
Image by Dmitry Bezrukov
by Teo Spengler
May 27, 2022

When I returned to San Francisco to earn my Master of Fine Arts, I knew it would be very different from my French mountain home. There would be neighbors within earshot, for one, the smells and sounds and sites of other people’s lives. 

And indeed those things were true. But what I didn’t even think about was the intrusion into my life of other people’s plants. Case in point: English ivy (Hedera helix) that looks like a vine but, in its dark heart, is a noxious weed.

English Ivy (Hedera helix)

I was lucky enough to find a place to live in San Francisco with a large backyard. I had resigned myself to the idea of an upper floor apartment, given the tech bubble inflating rental prices in the city. But, through a friend of a friend, I located a great house seven blocks from the Pacific with a large, undeveloped back yard.

This has been a joy and a delight and allows me to continue to garden and tend plants, a favorite pastime of mine in France. Yes, the ground was sandy, but I can work with that. Looking at the neighbors’ yards, when I first moved in, I could see that everyone had a few plants thriving. My neighbor to the south, for example, had a beautiful, deep green European vine climbing up our shared property-line wall that they called English ivy.

Ivy as Weed

The European vine was attractive against the wall, I thought. The wall was 10 feet (3.5 m.) high and the English ivy topped it on their side, then climbed down into my yard. The leaves were pretty, I thought. But that was before I saw English ivy as weed.

But it is classified as a noxious weed for good reason. English ivy is a woody perennial vine that climbs up or down anything. The reach of a single vine is 90 feet (30 m). The vine is evergreen and grows lustily in the mild, fog-moist San Francisco climate. It spreads aggressively to cover anything and everything.

Getting Rid of a Noxious Weed

When they call English ivy a noxious weed, this is what they mean: left to its own devices, it climbs up and covers trees, walls and even into structures. The vines are tough and strong enough to penetrate tree trunks and crack buildings. 

How does it attach to these surfaces? Its small aerial roots exude a substance like glue that allows the vines to hold onto whatever they touch. The vines grow thicker, with trunks thick as your arm.

The best way to get rid of ivy and keep it from taking over even more of the yard is to remove it physically. Thank heavens the stems have no thorns and the roots are fairly shallow. I have now lived in this house for almost seven years and the battle against the noxious weed English ivy continues. Each year I get slightly closer to seeing the last of Hedera helix. 

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