English Ivy, also called Hedera helix, is somewhere up there just below blackberries on the list of plants I hate. In Washington, it’s classified as a “Class C noxious weed”, which means that it’s a non-native plant that has already invaded so much territory that the state has completely given up on controlling it, let alone eradicating it. Our neighbors to the south grow it in their garden, and it’s a constant battle to keep it out of our back yard.
I’ve always disliked ivy because it spreads like wildfire, smothers and kills everything in its path on the ground, and even climbs up huge trees and slowly chokes them to death. It isn’t even an attractive plant, like bamboo, or a fruit-producing plant like blackberries.
For the past two months I’ve been too busy to go running, but this week I’ve been trying to get out and do it a few times. Yesterday I went out just before sunset, and as I neared the end of our road I was assaulted by a smell that was like one of those open drains that one sometimes encounters in places with no access to public sewer lines, where everything from sewage to bath water and laundry water gets dumped. But it wasn’t just the open drain smell. This odor also had a strong component of semen. Yes, it was a strange combination of semen, sewage, and rotting laundry detergent.
I had no idea what the smell might be, but was even more surprised to smell exactly the same odor again, even stronger, a half-mile or so down a side road. The only thing I could see that might be responsible was a large ivy-covered fence or wall. The ivy looked like it was in bloom, with spherical clusters of small, unattractive, greenish flowers. I passed by the ivy, knowing that if I smelled the odor on the way back, I would need to stop and stick my nose in it to confirm that it was the ivy.
Sure enough, long before I reached the ivy on the return trip I started to smell it. Once I was close to it, there was no doubt. The scent from a cluster of ivy flowers is almost enough to knock you over. Sewage, rotten detergent, and a whopping big dose of semen. I know many small, white flowers smell like semen (a topic for another post), but ivy adds other unpleasant notes to it, making for a really aversive olfactory experience.
I did learn something from my encounter with the stinky flowers. Ivy blooms in the fall, with the berries ripening in the spring, when food for birds is scarce. Nature has designed yet another bird-propagated plant destined to take over the world if allowed to.
The funny thing is that there are so many “English ivy” fragrance products on the market, mostly fragrance oils and candles. I wonder if the people who come up with these products have ever smelled English ivy flowers? In all fairness, they’re probably thinking about the leaves, which just have a vaguely spicy, waxy, sharp and toxic-unpleasant green-plant smell. I don’t think I would want my house or my person to smell that way, but to each his own. More likely, they’re thinking of some abstract rendition of ancient ivy-covered architectural structures in England, something that seems to fascinate the many Anglo-Saxon wannabes in the US.
The Good Scents Company lists Hedera helix absolute as a perfume ingredient, but apparently there are no suppliers of it. That’s not too surprising given that similar effects can be achieved with other green materials like violet leaf absolute, but it is surprising given how abundant and cheap the raw material would be. Maybe it’s because English ivy is reported to cause contact dermatitis in some people, so it’s not a good thing to put in perfume. One more reason to dislike ivy.
[I don't take my phone with me when I run, so didn't get any photos of the actual plant that emitted the smell. These photos are all adapted from Wikimedia.]