IVY is a plant many gardeners mistrust. Ivy growing up a tree, or clinging to the walls of the house, is frowned upon by some, fearing potential damage resulting from its presence.

However, ivies are widely grown and recommended as climbers for shady walls and fences and as hardy, evergreen ground cover plants for difficult situations.

Ivy figures prominently in folklore, along with its evergreen partner, holly. Both were revered by ancient man because of their power to retain their shining green leaves in winter, when other plants were little more than dead sticks.

Both produced flowers or berries at this time, signs of fortune and fertility. Holly was considered masculine because of its tough constitution and free- standing habit; ivy feminine, because of its dependency on support and clinging habit.

Ivy was considered bad luck if brought into the house at any time other than Christmas, and then safer if accompanied by holly, which was powerful enough to neutralise any negative influence.

On a more positive note, ivy is associated with the Roman god, Bacchus, who wore a circlet of ivy leaves around his head.

Bacchus is linked to fun, merriment and good fortune. Ivy growing on the outer walls of a house keeps bad luck away.

In reality, ivies make useful and beautiful garden plants that will thrive in situations where weaker subjects fail.

Ivies offer a variety of foliage effects and their cream, white and yellow variegations add colour without flowers.

They are versatile plants, useful on walls and fences, for growing up obelisks and over garden structures, for ground cover under shrubs and trees and on banks, and to add colour and interest to containers, especially in shade.

The large-leaved ivies are dramatic and beautiful, with shiny, showy foliage often boldly blotched or broadly edged with colour. Hedera colchica, the Persian Ivy, boasts several wonderful varieties. Hedera colchica Sulphur Heart has large dark green leaves, emerald green nearer the centre boldly splashed with golden yellow. It is at its best in shade or semi-shade and makes wonderful ground cover under evergreens such as holly or laurel. It is also impressive when grown up the trunk of a mature tree. On a shady wall, it makes a wonderful planting partner for the winter jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum. The bright yellow flowers are shown to perfection against the bold leaves of the ivy and the latter conceals the rather untidy, and sometimes unsightly, stems of the jasmine.

Hedera colchica, "Dentata Variegata", is one of the most versatile large-leaved ivies; it grows in sun or shade. The leaves are broadly edged with cream and are centrally marked with dark green and sage. It is a robust and hardy plant, more so than the widely grown "Canary Island ivy", Hedera algeriensis, "Gloire de Marengo". This has pale-green, shiny leaves marked with dark green and edged with white. Although not quite as hardy, it comes through our mild winters unscathed and is a very useful plant to mix with any plain green ivy on a wall or fence.

In a rustic situation, ivy can be a good solution to cover an old and fading fence, provided the supports are sound or, perhaps, reinforced. Both Hedera helix, the common ivy and Hedera colchica, the Persian ivy, enter an adult phase in which shorter, woodier shoots appear with less lobed leaves and spherical heads of green flowers that mature into green, then black, berries. If left alone this branching continues to develop into more shrubby growth. This is often seen on the trunks and in the heads of mature trees. If clipped back hard, ivy can be rejuvenated and will produce more trailing shoots of lobed leaves. Ivy covering an old fence and treated in this way evolves into a "fedge", a hybrid between fence and hedge.

The varieties of Hedera helix, the common ivy, are numerous, displaying great variation of colour, variegation and leaf form. They have smaller leaves and lighter growth than the large-leaved ivies described above. Many are grown as houseplants and young plants for use in patio containers. Some are less hardy than others, but again, because of milder winters, this is rarely a concern. Hedera helix "Goldchild" is an example. The leaves are bright green, edged with yellow when young, blue-green, edged with cream when mature. It is a most attractive plant and although considered a little tender is now widely used as a ground cover plant, or one to grow over low walls.

Hedera helix "Glacier" is one of the most widely grown variegated ivies with blue-green leaves narrowly edged with white. It creates a silvery effect, useful as ground cover in semi-shade. Try it with the back grass-like perennial Ophiopogon planiscarpus "Nigrescens".

Sometimes bright, shiny green is all you need and Hedera helix "Green Ripple" supplies this admirably. With irregular, sharply-lobed leaves held gracefully on gently arching stems, it is perfect in a pot in shade or to cascade over a low wall or alongside steps.

There is an ivy for any situation and they are a friendly bunch of plants if treated with respect. If neglected and left to wander, some will take advantage: it is up to the gardener to take control. Andrew McIndoe