Variegated Persian Ivy

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Could any ivy be more vivid?  Only—perhaps—the variegated Algerian-ivy cultivar 'Gloire de Marengo'.  That ivy is a knock-out in Summer containers, but it won't survive the Winter in New England.  This ivy is as large and as brilliant—and yet here it is, thriving outside year after year.

 

This is "Persian" ivy, native to the Near East.  "Algerian" ivy, Hedera canariensis, is native to the Canary Islands, as well as Portugal and northwest Africa, Algeria included.  Persian ivy is definitely hardier, and this cultivar, 'Dentata Variegata', is every bit as flashy.

 

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I've planted mine near an old stump, but my real goal is for it to climb a nearby tree.  In a couple of years, that tree won't be such a sapling, and it will be ready for me to lead a tendril of the Persian ivy over so they can get acquainted.

 

 

Here's how to grow this showiest of the hardy ivies:


Latin Name

Hedera colchica 'Dentata Variegata'

Common Name

Variegated Persian Ivy

Family

Araliaceae, the Aralia family.

What kind of plant is it?

Broadleaf evergreen vine.

Hardiness

Zones 6 - 10.

Habit

Self-clinging and multi-stemmed, capable of growing as a groundcover as well as climbing up and over anything it encounters.

Rate of Growth

Fast. 

Size in ten years

In mild climates, and with opportunity to climb, to twenty feet and more.  In Zone 7 and warmer, Hedera colchica can climb to nearly a hundred feet.

Texture

Thick, dense, heavy.

Grown for

its foliage.  Hedera colchica 'Dentata Variegata' is the most colorful hardy ivy, and is a dead-ringer in leaf size, overall size, and vigor for the more tender Algerian cultivar, Hedera canariensis 'Gloire de Marengo',

the gold standard of variegated ivies.  Individual leaves can be ten inches across, at least in Zone 7 and warmer; five or six is about it in Zone 6.  The perimeter of each is broadly but irregularly bordered and sectioned in cream, with a couple of interior sections of gray-green, and then a minority patch of light green.  The overall effect is bright. 

 

its flowers.  When the vine is able to climb, it is able (eventually; be patient) to develop adult stems, which flower and fruit.  The apetalous flowers are in dense heads about the same size and of somewhat the same look as golfballs.  The flowers produce a lot of nectar, and arrive late in the season, too, so are wide favorites with insects, bees and wasps included.  They mature to long lasting and discreetly-showy blue berries, which are eagerly sought by birds.  Be sure to cut some for arrangements first.


its hardiness.  In helpful circumstances—see "Culture" below—Persian ivy is solidly hardy in Zone 6, and grows quickly even at the cold end of its hardiness range. 

Flowering season

Late Summer into Fall.

Color combinations

Although each leaf is its own individual combination of cream, gray, and pale green, collectively, the foliage centers on the middle hue, gray-green.  While this color could, theoretically at least, accompany any hue, hot or cool, saturated or pastel, it's easier to juxtapose with a single saturated color.  Burgundy, pink, red, deep blue, or orange would all be exciting, either as the foliage or flower of foreground plants or the color of the wall on which 'Dentata Variegata' might climb.  A single strong neutral—black or brown or gray or even white—would be just as good in providing a disciplined background.

Partner Plants


'Dentata Variegata' is so interesting in detail, and usually so sculptural and prominent in form, let alone overall size, that partner plants need to be simple as well as substantial if they're not to be overwhelmed. 

 

Ferny or grassy foliage would always be welcome, so partner with, say, a purple-leaved Japanese maple rather than a purple-leaved smokebush.  And, whenever possible, partner with true ferns. 

 

Because 'Dentata Variegata' is itself a broadleaf evergreen, it would be difficult to combine with the standard evergreen shrubs—rhododendrons, camellias, hollies, and pieris—without the effect being heavy and static.  Instead, choose grassy, deciduous, and herbaceous partners.  Clumping bamboo has the smallest leaves of such "woody grasses."  Nandina domestica has ferny foliage, as do the sambucus cultivars with dissected leaves. 

 

What about a deciduous species whose Winter twigs are orange or red?  And one whose warm-weather foliage is ferny, or at least small, and in a color that is a decent contrast to that of the ivy?  A coppice of cut-leaf alder, Alnus glutinosa 'Imperialis', produces lengthy green twigs.  They'd provide a juxtaposition of form in Winter, if not color, and the textural contrast of the large rounded ivy leaves and the narrow fringe-edge foliage in Summer would also be good.  But a deciduous species that provides a color contrast as well?  My best suggestion is gold-leaved Siberian dogwood, Cornus alba 'Aurea', which has chrome-yellow leaves in Summer and scarlet twigs in Winter. 

 

Tireless sophisticates could keep a wall of 'Dentata Variegata' trimmed back to a smooth tapestry, up and through which could be allowed to grow the seasonal stems, foliage, and flowers of a Group C clematis.  'Lady Murasaki' produces large blue flowers; those of 'Gypsy Queen' are purple; those of 'Mme. Julia Correvon' are red.  Choose just one!   

Where to use it in your garden

Ivy climbs as readily as it crawls; let it do one or the other in any one location, not both.  Ivy used as a groundcover that has also been allowed to climb up trees or walls looks out of control—and probably is. 

See "How to Handle it" and "Downsides" for practical options for control. 

 

To my eye, 'Dentata Variegata' is too showy for use as a large-scale groundcover, although it would be delightful as a groundcover where its area is well-defined and not extensive.  A perfect rectangle of 'Dentata Variegata' at the side of a terrace or paralleling a walkway would be elegant.

 

But the foliage can usually be so large and so intricately colorful that the plant merits being grown so that its details can be studied easily—which means growing it as a climber.  Masonry walls would be prime candidates, as are the trunks of trees.  See "How to Handle it: Another option—or two?" for strategies.

Culture

Full sun to half shade, in any soil that has good drainage.  Ivy doesn't tolerate excessive soil moisture, but established colonies are heat- and drought-tolerant.  Ivy is very pH-tolerant, thriving in sweet as well as acid soils. 

How to handle it:  The Basics

Where it is solidly hardy, ivy could scarcely be easier to establish.  In cooler climates, plant only in Spring after frost danger; water as needed so the plant establishes over the Summer.  In Zone 8 and warmer, you could also plant in the Fall, which lessens the need for watering to get the plant established in its first year. 

 

The real challenge is controlling the ivy's rampant growth in subsequent years in a way that's practical as well as pleasing. 

 

When used as a groundcover, you'll need to control outward spread as well as prevent climbing.  Ivy can climb almost anything, from bare rock or glass, to wood fences and buildings, to the trunks and even the narrow branches of living shrubs and trees.  Control outward spread by pruning the perimeter of the colony a couple of times a year.  Control upward spread by pulling attached stems free and then cutting them; if you just cut them, they'll continue to adhere even after they're dead. 

 

In milder climates, the thickness of the groundcovering growth itself needs control if the look isn't to become that of an ever-more-lumpy mattress.  Every few years, brush-hog the entire colony at the beginning of a growth cycle; ivy resprouts easily, both from cut stems and directly from underground.  

 

All of these control measures are practical only if the entire colony, as well as its entire perimeter, are both readily accessible.  Ivy is not the evergreen groundcover to use amid groups of low-branched deciduous shrubs, or where the planting borders the native landscape.  For those uses consider non-climbing and non-vining groundcovers instead.          

How to handle it: Another option—or two?


'Dentata Variegata' is the most exciting when used as a climber, not a groundcover.  Ivy does not initiate damage to masonry that's in good condition; it may even protect the masonry by shielding it from quick temperature changes or the direct assault of wind-driven precipitation.  But any ivy can speed the breakdown of pointing or stones that were already loose, or bricks that were already failing. 

 

Either choose a wall that's only one story high, or prune to limit the ivy's ascent.  If the wall is part of a building, pruning is especially important to keep the ivy away from wood elements such as window frames and eaves, as well as out of the gutters.  Prune so that the ivy assumes an attractive shape.  Think architecturally:  Could it function as wainscotting?  A pilaster?  A focal panel of growth, like a tapestry?  A wide frame around a wall opening or a wall-mounted fountain?

 

'Dentata Variegata' is striking when allowed to climb appropriate trees.  Only the very largest shade-tree could handle its free-range growth for the long term.  Consider planting ivy at the base of a tulip tree, whose exceptional height (over 100 feet) would exceed that of the ivy, and whose bark isn't interesting in the first place.  For shorter trees, allow the ivy to climb only as high as you can easily prune, so that the ivy becomes a bulky and colorful leg-warmer for the base of the trunk—or, to use a grander term, a spat. 

 

If you have a well-placed but diseased or dead tree that also needs to be cut down, consider cutting the trunk only to, say, eight feet, and letting ivy clothe it and, in time, form a crown of adult growth.  You'll have an ivy "tree."  See "Quirks" below for suggestions to encourage adult growth.

Quirks or special cases


Branches of adult ivy eventually sprout from juvenile ivy that has been able to climb for a few years.  Adult branches don't vine, nor do they produce self-clinging roots.  Although usually not more than a foot or two long, the branches of very old adult ivy can grow to three, four, or even five feet.  It's best, then, to allow a minimum of eight feet of clearance for adult ivy; if you're growing ivy up a trunk and want adult ivy on all sides, plan for a canopy of adult ivy that's ten feet in diameter plus the diameter of the trunk itself, and give it a space that's sixteen to twenty feet wide overall so it doesn't look crowded.

 

Typically, juvenile stems are only likely to "go adult" when they reach the top of whatever they're climbing.  You'll have adult ivy sooner, then, if you grow ivy up structures that are shorter.  Ivy growing up a very tall tree might grow for decades before producing adult branches, whereas ivy growing up a structure that's only eight feet tall might go adult in only five years.

 

If ivy is naturalized where you garden, only grow it to adult form if you can harvest the fruiting sprays.  They are gorgeous in bouquets—but you'll need to be able to reach them easily to make your yearly harvest realistic.  Establish ivy that's intended to mature to adult growth, then, only on structures short enough to allow you to harvest all the fruiting branches from a step-ladder.

Downsides

In Zones 7 and warmer, ivy can become invasive.  Juvenile ivy—the familiar self-clinging vine—covers countless square miles of ground, wall, and tree bark.  It's a noxious weed in many states, especially those with milder climates: the Pacific Northwest, e.g., or the Southeast.  The vine can spread with surprising speed—rooting as it goes—whether scrambling along the ground or climbing.

 

Juvenile ivy climbs by way of self-clinging roots; these are not harmful to host shrubs or trees, nor masonry that's in good condition, but they will speed the rotting of carpentry.  Do not let ivy climb on fences or wood structures.


The fruits of adult ivy are devoured by birds, who then spread the seeds widely.  But the fruiting branches are often so high up you'd need to wear a jet-pack to disbud them.

 

See "How to handle it" for stylish strategies for controlling the spread of juvenile and adult ivy both.

Variants

Hedera colchica is itself very garden-worthy, with even larger leaves of a solid green much deeper than any shade of green in 'Dentata Variegata'.  The leaves of 'Sulphur Heart' have a very irregular deep-green perimeter surrounding a large central blotches of light green, green-yellow, and yellow.  As with 'Dentata Variegata', the majority of each leaf is usually given over to the different degrees of variegation.  It's even hardier than 'Dentata Variegata'.  The leaves of H. colchica 'My Heart' are comparatively smaller—about the size of those of Hedera helix—and are even thicker and darker green.  It is also solidly hardy in Zone 6. 

Availability

On-line and, where the species is soundly hardy, sometimes even at retailers.

Propagation

By cuttings.

Native habitat

Hedera colchica is native to the Near and Middle East.

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