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Ivy and butcher’s broom – the ‘hungry-gap’ berries, plus birds to look out for this winter in Cambridge





I like ivy! It just appeared in my small garden, and it now covers my side of a shared garden fence. A large-leaved variegated variety grows on the opposite fence, probably from a seed dropped by a passing blackbird.

Ivy (Hedera helix) is a shade-loving evergreen woody plant and is important in providing a late nectar source for insects.

Flowering ivy - an important late nectar source. Picture: Bob Jarman
Flowering ivy - an important late nectar source. Picture: Bob Jarman

The insect photographed feeding on ivy flowers is a dronefly (genus Eristalis), a common honeybee mimic. As well as offering roosting and nesting sites for birds it also produces purple berries that survive into January and February - that difficult late winter “hunger-gap” when food for birds becomes scarce before insects start to emerge in early spring.

Many gardeners don’t like ivy and accuse it of “strangling” trees. I once had a brisk conversation with a gardener in St Andrew’s Church cemetery, Chesterton, who was severing ivy at the base of the trees. He was not persuaded that ivy benefits the ecology of the cemetery. The Woodland Trust says that ivy does not strangle trees and that it supports up to 80 species of wildlife.

Heavy ivy growth is also accused of raising the resistance of trees and thus increasing the chance of them blowing over in strong winds, but this is usually only if the trees are already weakened by disease.

Ivy stems cut to stop 'strangling' the host tree at Paradise nature reserve. Picture: Bob Jarman
Ivy stems cut to stop 'strangling' the host tree at Paradise nature reserve. Picture: Bob Jarman

Walk round most of our local belts of trees, including our nature reserves, and you can see where mature ivy has been severed at the base of the tree to prevent “strangling”. The result is dead and desiccated stems that remain for many years. I have read of ivy in our European woods being compared to the importance of lianas in tropical rainforests.

As much as I like ivy I’m not sure I would like it climbing up the exterior walls of my house. Yet there is no evidence to suggest that it poses a threat to sound masonry either. Research by Oxford University for English Heritage found that it can offer a thermal screen and reduce damage from pollution. Dense ivy growth can provide a perfect nest site and food source for house sparrows.

The best house sparrow colony in Cambridge used to be in lush ivy cover on the front of a house in Radegund Road. The ivy was eventually removed, understandably, and a colony of about 10 house sparrows’ nests were lost.

Ivy was often used to advertise taverns, and many pubs and a famous restaurant are still called ‘The Ivy’. At Christmas, being evergreen, it is often used in traditional decoration as a symbol of immortality and eternal life.

Butcher's broom. Picture: Bob Jarman
Butcher's broom. Picture: Bob Jarman

Butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus) is another late berry-producing plant. Like ivy it is a shade-tolerant evergreen shrub, but it produces red berries and has stiff, spine-tipped leaves (aculeatus means prickly). It is a strange looking shrub with apparently dead stiff stems among the living stems.

It was used, as its name suggests, by butchers who used the stiff twigs and leathery leaves to sweep away blood-soaked sawdust from the butchery floor.

In the 1950s to early 1960s, Sainsbury’s had a large shop in the city centre where the Japanese restaurant Itsu is now in Sidney Street. The photograph was taken, I think, in the early 1960s.

Sainsbury's in Sidney Street in the early 1960s. Picture: Bob Jarman
Sainsbury's in Sidney Street in the early 1960s. Picture: Bob Jarman

The store was huge, and long counters ran down each side of the shop selling fresh and smoked meats, cheeses and goodness knows what else! My mother used to take me there on shopping trips and I remember seeing clumps of butcher’s broom hung up, ready to be used to sweep the butchers’ blocks and the soiled sawdust from the meat counters and floors.

In this season, keep your eyes open for waxwings feeding on our berry-laden hedges, as a winter invasion of these spectacular birds is under way.

A waxwing in Longworth Avenue in 2016. Picture: Bob Jarman
A waxwing in Longworth Avenue in 2016. Picture: Bob Jarman

Also look out for over-wintering continental blackcaps that are venturing into our urban gardens for food, especially cotoneaster and mistletoe berries and any grapes still on the vine.

This is often a quiet time for birdwatching in the city. I am worried by just how few birds have visited my feeders. Perhaps the pet cat and the grey squirrel(s) are too intimidating?

I used to think that bird feeders were the all-important source of winter food for our urban birds, but some research suggests the opposite might be true! But that’s a story for another edition of the paper.



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