Politics & Government

Ivy is causing headaches in the Ivy League

Ivy League colleges are as popular as ever. Ivy itself, not so much.
Ivy League colleges are as popular as ever. Ivy itself, not so much. Barbara Johnston/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT

WASHINGTON — Ivy Leaguers love their ivy, but many campus groundskeepers don't. They know ivy as a high-maintenance nuisance that's often home to angry bees.

Indeed, some Ivies have been stripping ivy completely from their buildings for years. Others, in this era of tight spending, would like to trim their ivy-trimming budgets. That's the worst of ideas, however.

Left unchecked, ivy crumbles bricks and mortar. It wriggles under roof shingles and wrecks window frames. It fells gutters with its prying and weight. It's also unrelenting.

"Ivy won't grow underwater or in the desert, but you can drive over it, you can play ball in it, you can Weedwack it, you can dump chemicals on it. It can't be killed," said John Peter Thompson of Upper Marlboro, Md., an invasive species consultant. "Basically, it's indestructible."

To fight back, groundskeepers must pull the ivy off buildings, trim it back and scrape off tendrils that deface the wall. Others repair the brickwork and restore and repaint damaged window frames. At Cornell University, the ivy trimming and scraping alone is a one- to two-month job for a crew of six, landscape manager Kevin McGraw said.

"We don't even get it all every year," he said. "It can be sort of a maintenance nightmare."

An ivy-less campus is unthinkable, however, said Jim Consolloy, the grounds manager at Princeton.

"People think that ivy belongs in the realm of higher education," he said. "When students visit Princeton they expect to see ivy-covered walls."

Consolloy said that Princeton's ivy, which costs about $15,000 a year to maintain, required "constant vigilance" and a willingness to be stung by wasps, bees and hornets, which nest in it. Birds, bats, squirrels and other insects also call his ivy home.

The Old English look that ivy lends isn't as old as you'd think, according to Harvard historian David Harris Sacks. "Not a hint of ivy" was evident until the late 1880s, he discerned from studying 18th- and 19th-century views of the campus. "But by 1900, it was everywhere."

Decoration aside, ivy was something of a green building concept, explained Russell Windle, the director of research at the American Ivy Society in Deerfield, N.J.

"The leaves arrange themselves like shingles, so it works as insulation. It keeps a wall cool in summer and warm in winter," he said.

Suzanne Peirot, the ivy society's president, said that universities caused the problem by cultivating the wrong ivy.

Two kinds show up on most campuses, Peirot explained. The one she favors is English ivy, aka Hedera helix, an invasive, evergreen species that has no predators. It's hard to kill but slow-growing.

The other kind is Boston ivy. Experts don't consider it a true ivy because it's a separate species, aka parthenocissus, but it's native to the U.S. and grows much faster than English ivy. It changes color as dramatically as a maple leaf in fall, but it's very hard on brick buildings.

Harvard, which once fairly crawled with ivy, removed it from Widener Library and its stadium without incident. When crews peeled the ivy from two residential houses in 1982, however, students and alumni protested loudly.

"One of the reasons people feel comfortable about Harvard is the scenery," David Stern, a founder of Save Harvard's Ivy, told the student newspaper. "It's nice once you step inside the gates to see ivy on them. Ivy has turned into a symbol for the school itself."

Harvard's administrators yielded.

These days, however, said Wayne Carbone, the manager of landscape services, whenever Harvard renovates a building, the ivy goes.

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