Thursday, January 3, 2013

The multi-purpose ivy plant

Ivy (Hedera helix)

Walk through Buskett Gardens at this time of the year and you will be amazed by the variety and number of birds singing in the ivy plants that grow on many of the walls along the numerous paths. 

The songs belong to robins, blackcaps, song thrushes and other species that congregate in the gardens to feed on the fruit of the ivy, lentisk and other species of plants. 

Some of the birds are winter visitors. They arrived in the autumn and spent the winter in the Maltese islands.

Others have just arrived from further south, probably from North Africa and stopped in Malta to refuel and build up their body fat which will provide the energy required by them to complete their journey to their breeding grounds further north.

The ivy also attracts other creatures especially butterflies and moths that lay their eggs on the leaves which are the food plant of the caterpillars when they hatch. In turn the caterpillars are eaten by birds.

The leaves and berries, whilst so attractive to many species of birds and insects are toxic to humans. The leaves contain a chemical which can cause an allergic reaction in some people. This same substance has been found to kill breast cancer cells.

It has been found that ivy is an efficient air filter. It tops a list of plants that remove toxic chemicals from the air. The list was compiled by NASA as part of the NASA Clean Air Study which researched ways to clean the air in space stations. As well as absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, as all plants do, these plants also eliminate significant amounts of benzene, formaldehyde and/or trichloroethylene.

The ivy, known in Maltese as liedna, is native to western, central and southern Europe, northwestern Africa and across central-southern Asia east to Japan. It is indigenous to Malta and grows very well on north-facing walls. It is common at Buskett and in some valleys and would be a useful plant if grown in gardens where it would attract wildlife, provide much needed greenery and cover ugly walls.

This article was published in The Times on 04.02.09.

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