If we were to try to consider which one of our native flowers was the most important, which would it be? It’s an impossible question to answer, because we would have to ask: most important for what, and for whom? The rose, with so much history attached to its symbolism, might be considered our most important flower culturally; yet the daisy family Asteraceae is by far the most significant numerically, with over 22,000 species in the clan; and what of the flowering trees, where would we be without them? But ask an apiologist which is our most important flower, and the answer may surprise you; for this ‘one who studies bees’ might say with some certainty that it is the flower of the Common Ivy.
Bees thrive in summer, gathering nectar from flowers of all kinds and incidentally taking with them pollen from the male anther of one flower to the female stigma of another in the process of pollination which, in turn, allows fertilisation for the reproduction of our plants. In this respect, bumblebees, honey bees, butterflies, hover flies and many other insects do an immensely important job in our countryside: every year, simply by going from flower to flower in search of nectar (their primary food) they cause nearly all of our plants, most of our trees and most of our crops to produce seeds for next year. But what happens in mid-September and October when all the pretty summer flowers have died?
Common Ivy blooms later in the year than most other plants, so it is virtually the only source of autumn nectar for bees and other insects. And what a good source of nourishment it is: Ivy grows everywhere and its flowers, which are tiny, yellow-green, and grow in spherical clusters, are laden with a rich nectar with a very high sugar content: the main ingredient these insects need. Some scientists have suggested that, without a final feed up on Ivy, most of our bees and many of our insects simply could not survive from late summer through to the next spring; and with no bees to pollinate the plants in spring, our environment would face devastation.
Common Ivy is often regarded as a garden nuisance: no one buys it for its blooms; few people even realise that it bears flowers, and certainly no one puts them on show in a vase. But this unassuming little bloom, which forms the flower-balls of the Common Ivy, just might be our countryside’s most important flower of all.