English Ivy

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English Ivy with Berries in Late Fall

A tree engulfed in English Ivy will exhibit decline for several to many years before it dies. The reasons are ivy obscures light from reaching the tree’s leaves, preventing photosynthesis, and the added weight of vines makes younger trees and branches susceptible to blow down during storms. Also, according to Penn State Extension, English Ivy has the ability to spread bacterial leaf scorch, which affects a wide variety of trees, and creates “ivy deserts” across landscapes.

Typical 3-lobed leaves
Typical 3-lobed Leaves

While English Ivy is under control in its native European habitat, it has become invasive in North America. What’s more, its dark purple berries, which mature in the tree canopy by January, can be toxic to birds, other wildlife, and even humans. Children are especially susceptible to this plant’s toxins, and for some people, contact with its leaves causes skin irritation, itching, rash, and blisters. Since poison ivy often grows along with English Ivy and both vines look alike — although poison ivy vines are leafless in the winter – wear heavy gloves, glasses or goggles, long sleeves and pants when removing ivy.

Immature berries in August, usually seen above the ground
Immature Berries with Mature Leaves in August, Usually Seen in Tree Canopies.

As the vines mature, their three lobes merge.

English Ivy Vines
English Ivy Vines

There’s a simple method to remove ivy…permanently. Using 9” lineman’s or 10” groove joint pliers, pruners and/or a limb saw for thicker vines, grab and cut the ivy on the tree at least a foot above the ground. (It may take a year for the upper remaining ivy to die on the tree). Gently pull the lower section of each cut vine down to the ground (avoid damaging the bark) and pull it out to at least 3 feet from the trunk, cutting and uprooting any vines in the way. Cover the open area with leaves/wood chips, but leave 3” of clearing around the trunk.

Large Mature Vines with Cut-outs

Often embedded in trees, mature English Ivy vines greater than an inch can be cut with a limb saw along with a hammer and chisel. Specifically, at a foot or so above the ground, saw and chisel each large vine in two locations about five inches apart. Carefully remove the severed section without damaging the tree. If possible, remove the lower portion down to and along the ground. And since ivy tends to wrap around the foot of trees where it can damage their roots, saw the vines wherever possible to release tension. Check in a year for regrowth.

A patch of English Ivy

Runners cut by mowing can establish deep roots at the nodes, resulting in dense overall growth that requires additional root removal.

To remove patches of ivy running along the ground, start at the inner edge and, using pruners and pliers, grab, pull and cut each runner as far as possible. Repeat to where the runner originates at the root. Extract the root, gather the runners, pile them on cardboard or plastic sheeting, and flip them occasionally to desiccate, or bag for a yard waste pickup.

The best time to remove ivy is in winter when other plants are dormant. The work is especially quick and effective when the ground is moist.

Black 2 Mil Plastic Sheeting Layered with Corrugated Cardboard and Cuttings

Another option for the English Ivy growing along the ground is to smother it by sheet mulching. Pull up as much ivy as possible then lay corrugated cardboard or thick layers of newspaper plus layers of compost, straw and wood chips to kill it. The mulch should stay in place for at least two growing seasons and may need to be augmented several times. Black plastic sheeting secured with landscape staples is another option when laid at least 3 feet from trees, or where tree roots won’t be compromised. Cut runners from around the edge of the plastic.

(Click Vine Removal for additional details.)

Save Native Plants…Remove Invasive Species