My mother used to sing the song from her era, the 1940s, when I was very young.
''Mairzy doats and dozey doats, and liddle lamzey divey,'' is what came out of her mouth, but what I heard was, ''Mares eat oats and does eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy.''
Turns out, a chorus in the song explains how to sing the words by pronouncing them the way I heard them, but I don't remember my mother singing the chorus. I only remember wondering if things were so bad during the second World War that parents actually were forced to feed ivy to their poor, starving children.
I've known about ivy (Hedera helix) for as long as I can remember. As a bookworm whose favorite place of all was the public library, I often read stories that described English country homes covered with long vines of deep green, thick-leafed ivy. My house was an older two-story that was covered with brown asbestos shingles until my parents had aluminum siding put on, and my mother hated those ivy-covered structures. But it was easy to visualize ivy-covered homes because there were other homes in my hometown that did have those long tendrils winding up to the second story, around the window frames and over the doorways. I loved them. I pictured myself someday living in a reddish-brick, two-story home with ivy growing up and around.
But then someone, I won't name names, but someone burst my bubble. Ivy damages the mortar, I was told. If it gets too bad, your house will fall down around you. It is expensive to fix all the damage that ivy causes. It's the worse thing you can do to your house. It contains too much moisture and attracts nuisance animals like moles and mice. And that doesn't even include the insects. But what about all those old English country houses where ivy has been growing for centuries? What about those? No one could answer other than to tell me ivy was bad.
Several years ago, I defied those affirmations and sneaked some ivy into my front garden. No one noticed at first. It was just a little tendril with a few wayward roots when I first planted it among a few small shrubs. It was separated from the house by the front walk and grew for about three years before anyone noticed. But once established, it began to sneak around like a naughty child. First it crossed the sidewalk. I would pick up its long vine and put it back in the garden, admonishing it for its bad behavior. But soon other vines joined in the escape and before long, it was not only across the walk, but beginning to curve upward, clinging to the siding on the house.
I kept quiet about it, waiting to see what would happen, and sure enough, it did.
''Did you see the ivy growing up the front of the house?'' my husband asked.
I couldn't lie. It was pretty evident by then that a few long vines were beginning to hug the front door and would soon twine around the doorbell and perhaps cover the front window like Audrey 2 in "Little Shop of Horrors."
''I'm pulling it out,'' he said.
At my request, he didn't kill the plant, but he did banish it to the far end of the property. And then he quietly mowed it, with every lap of the tractor, all summer long. He hates ivy as much as I love it, and this time it didn't survive.
I've seen a lot of ivy growing in a lot of garden landscapes. Just last summer, an entrant in our annual amateur flower garden contest, publicly and without shame, displayed a lovely thicket of ivy growing beneath every tree on the property. A close friend of mine lets her ivy cling to a very old and important tree at the side of her yard. Each year it tries to sneak across the yard to cover the lattice enclosing the space beneath the porch, but a good trimming twice a year easily keeps it in check.
There are more than 400 species of Hedera helix, also called English ivy. What we see outdoors growing happily in shade or sun is a quick-growing variety that is hardy to our area. Smaller leafed ivies with more compact growth are sold as house plants and will not survive outside during our winters. Hedera helix clings to trees by way of its aerial roots that grow along the stems. The plants produce these stems as soon as the vine comes into contact with anything, such as the ground, a tree or a building. The aerial roots are more for support than anything else, although they can absorb some moisture as well.
On those English country houses, ivy is often regaled for its added insulation and through the process of transpiration, the taking in and giving off of moisture, ivy is believed to keep those walls dry, rather than attract moisture as some might believe.
If you are an ivy-lover, there are people out there you can talk to who share your passion. The American Ivy Society promotes and educates people on this misunderstood plant. Cultivars created over the years include those with slender, pointed leaves as well as any number of variegated varieties. The 2009 Ivy of the Year, Hedera helix 'Eva' is a lovely little plant with creamy white edges with gray-green centers on its leaves. In cooler temperatures, the creamy white can take on shades of pale pink.
Today, my ivy-growing has been consigned to small containers with tiny trellises or topiaries. But I have a plan. I know of a spot in the yard where ivy would look lovely growing up a wall at the back of the barn. It's an area where there is little sunlight and it never gets mowed. Just don't tell my husband.
Evanoff is a Master Gardener with The Ohio State University Extension of Trumbull County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.