Bangor scientists ask the public to assist in locating ivy crops

Ive in fruitIvy in fruitScientists at Bangor University are conducting two cutting edge research programmes which are looking at different uses for our native ivy and need the public’s help to locate easy to pick ivy fruit.  

Dave Preskett of Bangor University said:  “We would like to locate ivy which is growing on walls or other upright structures bearing heavy crops of fruits.  The fruit should be hanging down in clusters about the size of a golf ball, purple coloured (green or dark khaki indicates they are not fully ripe) and at least one square metre in area and can be picked easily without climbing. If there are a lot of small groups in the same area this could also prove useful.  A postcode and brief description to locate the site is helpful if not a grid reference/GPS co-ordinates and possibly pictures if at all possible.  Populations of ivy within a 50 mile distance of Bangor are preferred but significant crops further away could be considered.  We need the public’s help to locate the plants as they are not yet being grown commercially.”

Anyone who has this amount of ivy on their land or has seen it in hedgerows and would like to be involved in this research should contact with the above mentioned details and the Bangor Scientists will get in touch.

The scientists at Bangor are working on a £20m, 5 year project called BEACON, along with partners at Aberystwyth and Swansea Universities, in order to establish a biorefining Centre of Excellence In Wales.

Biorefining takes plant material and uses a series of mechanical, biological and chemical processes to convert it into a broad range of commercially important products including pharmaceuticals, transport fuels, energy sources, chemicals and fibres that are used in biocomposite materials for the construction industry. The biorefinery concept is analogous to today’s petroleum refineries, which yield fuels and products from crude oil; however it differs by using plant biomass as a starting material, which is renewable and ultimately more environmentally conscious.

BEACON will boost the green economy by helping business in North Wales, West Wales and the Valleys, by developing these processes in order to convert locally grown plant crops into this broad range of commercial products.

They are interested in ivy, among other plants, for a number of reasons.
Ivy fruits contain about 30% of a vegetable oil that has a high-value suite of uncommon fatty acids for which they have a patented process for extraction and purification.  They can be used in cosmetics, personal care products and nutraceuticals that are currently being explored with a consortium of partners including Welsh SME's and UK-based multinationals.

The fruits also contain about 25% of a group of chemicals called saponins that are of a uniform structure. Bangor’s researchers have shown that these are highly effective in controlling potato blight, slugs, dandruff, athlete’s foot, leishmania and candida at low concentrations and compete favourably with existing products.  Further applications currently being explored are for control of laminitis in horses, odour control in animal bedding and reduction of methane emissions from cattle with both academic and industrial partners.  Similar saponins are present in the leaves but at much lower concentrations and without the fatty acids.  

To add to the mix of components, there is a 20% protein content so the fruits have the potential to be used as material in a biorefinery operation, developed in Wales.

“We’re interested in developing new products based on sustainable resources;
and in establishing a Welsh supply chain from processing of biomass through to end product that will provide rural employment opportunities,” explains Adam Charlton from the BioComposites Centre, Bangor University.

Ivy also grows particularly well in the west of Wales and has an important ecological role in providing a late source of nectar for pollinators before the onset of winter as it flowers in late Autumn and there is a long harvesting window extending from January to late May or even early June.  Just a limited number of birds consume the fruits in the early months (predominately species of the thrush family and pigeons) so this is certainly low level and low impact harvesting.

Folklore, myths and legend:
Ivy has been long associated with Greek and Roman mythology and the leaves are often depicted on artefacts featuring Dionysus and later Bacchus.  The latter, with Bacchus' deity status as the god of wine and feasting probably gave rise to the myth that ivy was a cure for hangovers and was also a symbol of ale-houses indicating quality beer was sold on the premises.

Contrary to popular belief, ivy is not poisonous.  However, the only known death attributed to ivy was caused by choking on leaves in a bizarre suicide.  Ivy does however contain a class of allergens that cause contact dermatitis in susceptible individuals.  One of these allergens is also present in carrots but for this reason, we would prefer to pick the fruits ourselves to avoid any reactions by individuals and to apply our own sampling protocols for data collection.

Uses of ivy:
There are surprisingly a few modern day uses of ivy.  The most widely recognised though virtually unknown in the UK is as a cough treatment (expectorant) in mainland Europe.  It is relished by livestock, especially sheep and local farmers report feeding ewes ivy leaves as a tonic.  There are a number of other ethno-veterinarial and human ethno-pharmaceutical uses reported in literature.

The University has consulted with relevant agencies regarding the proposed harvest.

The BEACON partners are the Universities of Aberystwyth, Bangor and Swansea.  The consortium encompasses a wide range of world class expertise including: plant breeding and genetics; agriculture; biology; biotechnology; chemistry; materials science; engineering;  life cycle and  environmental impact analysis.

The University gratefully acknowledges support for BEACON from the Convergence European Regional Development Fund through the Welsh European Funding Office, part of the Welsh Government

Publication date: 26 March 2012