Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Ivy - the all-year-round carbon dioxide fixer

Ivy's flowers provide a wonderful nectar and  pollen resource for insects in autumn (see some examples at the bottom of this post) and its berries are a vital food  resource for migrant birds in early spring, but it also has another important attribute with more general implications.

As an evergreen that stores carbon in its woody trunk, ivy is an all year-round carbon dioxide fixer, constantly removing the gas from the atmosphere. In that respect it contributes towards combatting the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is the underlying cause of global climate change.

Deciduous trees like this ash have a short growing growing season in our seasonal climate. It comes into leaf in May and sheds its foliage in September, so for about half the year it fixes no carbon dioxide at all. But when it supports a luxuriant growth of ivy the two organisms together fix carbon dioxide 365 days a year.

The combined efforts of an ash tree with ivy cladding are likely to be more effective at fixing atmospheric carbon dioxide than an ash tree alone.

The tangle of  thick, woody ivy stems on this sycamore are as effective a store of carbon as the tree's trunk.

Ivy can even turn a dead tree into a carbon dioxide fixing pillar of evergreen foliage, as it did with this dead oak at Egglestone in Teesdale a few years ago. Even better, in autumn this stump became a tower of flowers, humming with insects that came for the nectar and pollen. In spring it was covered in berries.

Another example, at Wolsingham in Weardale.

Sadly, there are still plenty of ivy-haters around who are convinced that ivy is a parasite (it isn't, it just uses trees for support). They'll usually also advance the argument that a top-heavy mass of ivy is likely to bring trees down in winter gales, but most trees that are felled in this way are moribund anyway and topple because they have already been weakened by root-rotting fungi, not by ivy. Logically, a good cladding of well-rooted ivy stems is more likely to anchor a shaky tree, delaying its demise. 

The fact that trees that have been killed by fungi often have a healthy covering of ivy suggests that it might well be resistant to some of the fungi that kill trees.

From all of this you might have gathered that I'm something of an ivy enthusiast - not least because of the insect fauna that its flowers attract in autumn. All of the pictures below were taken in a few minutes late last October on another ivy clad tree just across the road from the oak-clad stump pictured above. 


  1. Yay, go ivy. It must be a very important roost site for birds too?

    1. Plenty of waterproof shelter under those glossy leaves. Great place for wrens' nests!

  2. Here on the central coast of California, the arriving overwintering monarch butterflies swarmed all the ivy in town back in October. It was quite a sight.

  3. I am an Ivy lover as well. Waiting patiently for my Ivy to be old enough to produce flowers and fruit.

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    1. I think ivy can be a real menace when it's an introduced species rather than a native because its year-round growth can smother ground vegetation. I have to stop it creeping over the soil in shady places in my garden, but when it grows up trees in plenty of light so that it can flower, it's a real asset to wildlife here