Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

A Visit With England's 'Mr. Ivy'

Ron Whitehouse grows and sells more types - well over 300 - than anyone else in the world. FANCIER OF PLAIN PLANTS

IF there's one person who qualifies for the title "Mr. Ivy," it's surely Ron Whitehouse. There are ivies, ivies everywhere at his nursery around and about his home - a home hidden away in an Essex village so obscure that the taxi-driver went straight through it without noticing. Just across the country lane from an unpredictably sited Greek Orthodox monastery is his gateway and the notice announcing "Whitehouse Ivies."Mr. Whitehouse has devoted half his life to ivies. During the first half he pursued a career in commercial art and design connected with advertising and publishing. His second career - chosen after a diligent search for a gap in the horticultural market and for a plant that could be grown without heating - was launched at the end of the 1970s after several years' buildup. Raising chickens bridged the interim while he accumulated and propagated some 100 different varieties of ivy, "70 more than my nearest rival," he claims. Today he grows and sells well over 300 varieties, certainly more than anyone in the world. Does he ever get tired of growing just one kind of plant? "Oh, no - never!" he says, surveying his "shop," a shaded greenhouse filled with a neatly organized sea of ivies. Clearly, Whitehouse is one of those well-ordered individuals whose job is also his chief pleasure.

An unusual plant Ivy (its official name is Hedera) is a much more unusual plant than most people realize. Even a devotee of Whitehouse's caliber recognizes that ivy is essentially "a background plant." It isn't grown for its spectacular flowers (it has them when mature, but they are somewhat modest and greenish), or for its berries (its fruit is usually black, though one variety bears orange berries). It is valued for the shape and patterning and color of its leaves - and for the fact that it is an all-year-round plant. When he was still an amateur, looking for a useful, hard-wearing plant that would swamp and suppress weeds in his garden, Whitehouse recalls being surprised there were more than half a dozen varieties of ivy. At the time, he bought a dozen plants. Later he realized that only one of the dozen had been correctly named. He could find very little information on ivies. The last book on them had been published in 1886. Since Victorian times, when ivy was very popular, it had been given little attention. It took Whitehouse two years to find a nursery in Britain (Fibrex Nurseries) that specialized in ivies. He knew, of course, that ivy was a favorite indoor plant. Its popularity had begun in the early '20s, when an American grower had spotted an ivy that was "self-branching." That plant fathered a large number of obliging ivies that hang very prettily out of pots and baskets and window-boxes. But outdoors, in gardens, the versatility and beauty of ivy was only just starting to be appreciated again. Enthusiasts were beginning to surface in the United States and in Britain. Ivies are great movers. They not only "trail," they climb and go along. In fact, most ivies do all three. With roots that attach to available surfaces, ivies are by nature coverers of whatever needs to be covered. They are also easy-going about soil. They are happy in poor soil and they don't mind if it's acid or alkaline. Many of them simply thrive on neglect. Whitehouse's ivy garden is a kind of bower through which you walk - ivies underfoot, ivies surging up poles and wall, ivies arching overhead. The only thing he does not display is ivy topiary - ivy rooted into frameworks of extraordinary shapes - which is becoming popular in the US. Thousands of pots of ivy are propagated in his large house. Most ivies root very easily. Whitehouse grows his in small pots, three or four per pot. He tugs at one to see if it has rooted - it comes out of the compost. He pushes it back in. It needs more time. How are new varieties developed? Unlike most garden plants, he says, ivies are not hybridized by cross-pollinating flowers and seed. Ivy seed tends to revert to common forms. What ivy does, quite frequently, is mutate. New varieties are chance forms. The grower needs to have a keen eye - which, several experts attest, Whitehouse certainly has. If he spots an ivy with leaves developing new traits, he propagates it by cutting or layering, and if its character holds true as he continues to propagate it - and if it is different and attractive enough - he may decide to name and register it. Botanist Sabina Mueller Sulgrove of West Carrollton, Ohio, is responsible for the international registration of ivies. She met Whitehouse last year when the increasingly active American Ivy Society visited Britain. So impressed was the botanist with Whitehouse's "eye" that she has asked him to ship examples of every kind of ivy he grows to her. The aim is to clarify the naming of varieties - particularly, she says, those Whitehouse has bought from Danish growers, who are productive but apparently careles s about names.

About these ads

Laying myths to rest Whitehouse picks out Hedera helix "Sally," one of his new varieties, named after his wife. "There's a group of ivies that have variegation on the spring growth," he explains, holding "Sally" up. "It's very pale - a lovely pale-lemony yellow with spots or splashes of green on it. It becomes wholly green about July or August." Whitehouse is happy to lay to rest various myths attached to ivies. One is that they so twist around tree-trunks that they kill the trees. No evidence, he says. Ivies grow vertically, they don't spiral. (The word "helix" applied to the common English ivy refers to the arrangement of its leaves on the stem, not to the stem's manner of growing.) If ivy is seen swamping a dead tree, it's probably because the tree was already dead. Live trees coexist with ivy growing up them. Another unproved accusation is that ivy berries are poisonous. The name "ivy" is used quite loosely to identify plants other than Hedera. Whitehouse points out that poison ivy isn't ivy at all. And the "ivy" in Ivy League is also wrong. The plant that grows on those venerable institutions is Virginia Creeper. But Whitehouse is less inclined to defend ivy (Hedera) against the claim that it is a danger to walls. "If it's a poor wall, it certainly will damage it," he says. And even on a new wall, "If you change your mind and want to get it off, it's going to leave a mark. Think first!" he cautions. Sometimes, he says, ivy enthusiasts go a bit far in defending the plant for all its fascinating virtues. "Like defending a spoiled, naughty child!" he laughs. As for himself, if he plants up another garden - which seems likely, since he plans to move soon - he says, "I think I'll grow all my ivies up posts."