Hedera helix

by jmbotnick

The Ivy League.

Did you know what ivy can be used as an expectorant and cure for bronchitis, and as a treatment for sore, watering eyes? Did you know about the plant’s ancient association with Bacchus, God of Wine, because of its supposed ability to counter the effects of alcohol? Do you look at ivy and tend to shout, “Aggressive alien intruder!”?

Well, ivy is all of this. Introduced in America by European settlers in the early 1700s, ivy extract has been traditionally used medicinally for centuries, in large part because of its practically miraculous effect on membrane linings. Pill and ointment forms of the oil can even be bought on Amazon nowadays.

However, the ethnobotanical properties of Hedera helix are beyond just medicinal. Of far greater economic and social impact is its symbolic and aesthetic value. “The Ivy League” began as an athletic conference of schools that shared high academic standards, geography, and an annual ceremonial planting of the (European) ivy. We are not seen as a group of bronchitis-free colleges; we are seen as an elite class with a complementary architectural style and clothing lines at Gant. Here at Yale, our neo-Gothic architecture is literally crawling with the intrusive plant, a relic of our collegiate forefathers, and now, our undercredited maintenance crews. It has become such a part of our landscape, and the idyllic landscaped aesthetic we cherish, that no one even bats an eye when the administration calls its cultivation “sustainable” and finds more and more ways to integrate the plant into our beds. 

So far, I have used this blog just to point out cool plants around campus and their uses. But this is turning into something of a call to action. We need to learn about the plants around us not just to preserve disappearing ethnobotanical knowledge, but to understand that the false assumptions and false conclusions we make because of them actually affect our health and the health of our environment. By not understanding our landscape, we risk making irreversibly negative impacts, or prioritizing an outdated aesthetic above all else.

“The Ivy League” might be a permanent fixture in our lexicon, but it doesn’t have to be our perpetual horticultural heritage.

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