Friday, November 26, 2010

Hedera Helix

Many years ago, when my children were a lot younger, I offered to place a couple of plants in their rooms. Of their choosing. Kind of. I say kind of because when we did finally walk through a garden center together and I told them to go ahead and choose whatever they want, every time they pointed to a plant that interested them, I added my (what finally turned out to be very annoying) two cents: “Your room is too dark for this plant”; “Your room is too dry for this plant”; “This plant is too difficult”; “This plant is too big”; “This plant is short-lived”; “This plant...”; “This plant...”; “This plant...”. And on and on and on I went, until my kids finally said “This plant thing is too hard. Can I get a goldfish instead?”

“Or a dvd?”

“Or a pack of gum?”

“Or some new underwear?”

“Anything but a plant...”

It turned out that I have a difficult time curbing my plant nurturing habits. My kids just wanted one or two plants for their rooms; anything would do. I wanted one or two appropriate plants for their rooms; not anything would do. For instance, how can you (with a clear botanical conscience) place an Adenium obesum (Desert Rose) – that needs full sun - in a room that offers very little light from its north-facing window? How do you suppose this succulent will fare in that spot? Not too good. And what about a Maranta leuconeura (Prayer Plant)? Do you honestly think it would appreciate having its leaves scorched by the summer’s hot, midday sun in the southern location you’ve imposed upon it? Mm…let me see. Not!

Anyway, so I was a little bit of a pain in the neck - until my kids lost interest in the plant-adding project that was supposed to be, above all else, fun. Which it wasn’t. I felt a little guilty about not being somewhat flexible with the plant choices, so I tried negotiating with them.

Me: “Okay. The size of the plant isn’t a big deal; you can get a large one as long as it’s reasonably priced. And if it’s a little difficult to grow...meh, so’ll just have to make more of an effort to keep it healthy. Light can’t be compromised, but maybe we can increase the humidity somehow. That’s all I’m imposing. Whaddya say?”

Younger daughter: “I want the goldfish plant.”

Me: “Now that’s a good match for your southwest-facing room; your plant will love it there!”

Older daughter, pointing at an English Ivy: “I like this one”

Me [Staring in horror]: “’’s a spider mite magnet.”

Older daughter with squinted eyes: “You didn’t say anything about bugs”

Me: “But...spider mites...”

Older daughter pointing at younger daughter: “How come she always gets her way?”

[Insert guilt here]

Me, swallowing hard. Very hard. “Okay...”

And that’s how a Hedera helix came into our lives. Spider mites and all.

Caring For A Hedera Helix - a.k.a Spider Mite Magnet

Yes, yes. I know many of you are going to disagree with me but I’m going to say it again: Hedera helix, commonly referred to as English Ivy, is a spider mite magnet. And it’s also a difficult plant to maintain indoors, I don’t care what anyone says. Sure it can be easy (any plant can be) but only if you offer it the absolute ideal environment, which will deter spider mites, and keep the plants healthy.

So what do you need to do?

Provide ample humidity.

I can’t stress enough how important this is, especially if you live in a home with central heating. Dry air is very detrimental to the health of a Hedera helix, and an invitation for mites to move right in. And believe me they will move right in if the humidity is not above average. They may move in anyway even if humidity is reasonable enough (spider mites seem to favour this plant and will do whatever it takes to get to it) but they won’t multiply as quickly, therefore they’ll be easier to deal with. No, I’m not being an alarmist or trying to deter you from getting this plant (although I would never - ever - recommend adding this plant to a home with central heating), I’m simply advising (warning) you of what to expect.

Make sure the temperature is cool.

The ideal location is cool but frost free. Do not grow a Hedera helix in a room that is very warm; this plant likes it cool. Temperatures should not exceed 16°C (60°F) and night temperatures should be even lower. If a Hedera helix is grown in temperatures that are too high its leaf edges will brown and dry. In addition, stems will be bare and spindly.

Water carefully.

This plant will die from rot if you over-water it, so don’t. Yes it’s easier said than done, but a Hedera helix, unfortunately, is part of the water juggling association. Basically, if you water too much, you’ll kill it. And if you don’t water enough, the leaves will dry to a crisp, the plant will become unsightly and the spider mites will move in. It’s obviously important to learn how to properly handle the water jug with this plant. Here’s what to do: use a fast-draining, airy soil to help prevent rot and keep it moist at all times during the summer by watering regularly. In the winter, water sparingly but never allow the soil to dry out completely. Other things you can do to prevent over or under-watering include: a) growing this plant in hydroculture, which it’s a great candidate for or b) growing it directly in water.

Give it plenty of light but not too much sun.

Despite what you may have been told, Hedera helix does not appreciate being grown in poorly-lit areas because it’s not a low light plant. This spider magnet (okay Water Roots lady, we get it) prefers a location that offers bright, indirect light or filtered sun. Protect the plant from the direct rays of the summer sun but don’t be afraid to place it where it can receive a little early morning eastern sunshine.

Feed it.

If your plant is in an ideal location and growing well, feed once a month at full strength or once every two weeks at half strength during the active growing season. Do not feed at all during the fall and winter or if the plant is in poor health (because it’s infested with spider mites).

That’s all there is to it folks. You would think that a plant with so few care requirements would be easy to grow. And that logic would work just fine with most other plants with similar needs. But not with the Hedera helix. Nope. The Hedera helix is in a league all its own. So, if you’re looking for a challenge, grow a Hedera helix. It will definitely give you a run for your botanical money.


  1. Alternate ending:

    Older daughter with squinted eyes: “How come she always gets her way?”

    Me, menacingly: "If you really loved me, you'd pick something else."

  2. Har har that, Mr. S. What better thing to use than 'parental guilt'. Passed on from generation to generation...

  3. Hi Martha,

    You got that right about the "mite magnet" thing. My wife occasionally talks about getting an English ivy and I veto it every time.

  4. Larry, in all the years I've been growing plants, I've never grown an ivy that didn't - eventually - get spider mites. The two go hand in hand!