12 Days of Christmas, South Florida Style

Christmas Day 10: The (Florida) Ivy

virginia creeper

When you hear the word, ivy, the image that pops into you head is English ivy, probably growing on an old brick building of some sort. Scientifically it’s known as Hedera helix and is native to Europe, Africa and Asia. Not Florida, not even North America.

Still, it’s become part of the holiday scene, intertwined with holly, if you will. But the only places it’s known to grow wild in our part of the world is Glades County, for some reason. No other member of the Hedra genus grows here, according to those who keep track of this sort of thing, and the only other plants with ivy in the name are all non-natives with the exception of poison ivy, which just won’t do for Christmas.

But we do have a plant that is ivy-like: Virginia creeper. It’s a Florida native, a member of the grape family and if you let it, it will climb onto anything; it will grip wood or the smoothest masonry walls and won’t let go. Give it time to grow and it will cover just as densely as ivy and at a distance, even look like it. It's so ivy-like some call it five-fingered ivy, the fingers being its five leaflets.

That’s where its similarity with ivy ends. But there’s more to the story.

Ivy became symbolically linked with holly in northern Europe because both plants stay green through the winter. Non-christian Europeans used both plants together to decorate their homes come the cold months, and made them part of their solstice celebrations. As Christianity became the dominant religion of the continent, the tradition continued with Christmas. The holly represents Christ, ivy the Virgin Mary.

Thing is, the physical features of holly tell a story — the leaves with their points form a crown of sorts; crimson berries represent Christ’s blood. On the other hand the features of ivy don’t really matter. So what the heck. Virginia creeper it is. Instead of five-fingered ivy, we’ll call it Florida ivy.

The holly and the ivy …
The holly bears a blossom,
As white as the lily flower,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
To be our sweet Saviour.

The Twelve days of Christmas

Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.