Ivy tower

Published in Wisconsin Week, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Sept. 8, 1999, written by Jeff Iseminger

This ballerina arches and soars and swoops over walls, showing with slow-motion elegance how graceful it can be. This star of brick and mortar can change a building from a box to a structure with botanical character.

By performing with such élan over centuries, it has climbed into the American public’s image of old English universities. Aptly enough, the root of its name is Old English, “ifig.” From there it is just an etymological hop to the Middle English “ivi” and then a mere skip to the modern English “ivy.”

Most of the ivy you see on UW-Madison buildings is either Boston or English ivy. Both typically have glossy green leaves with three to five lobes and inky-black berries. At UW-Madison, the leaves turn a soft burgundy in autumn and in milder climes stay evergreen.

As it grows, ivy inches across a wall every which way. These fingers of ivy are freed by the wall from worrying about uprightness, so they roam in search of unclaimed bricks and sunlight.

Ivy has roamed through history, too. It was a favorite of Dionysus (also known as Bacchus), the god of wine and an orgiastic religion in ancient Greece and Rome. Paintings of bacchanalian feasts show guests wearing wreaths or garlands of ivy.

But the same plant venerated by debauchees was worn by early Christians to celebrate the birth of Jesus. And the poet Byron called it “the garland of eternity.” Ivy, it seems, is what you make of it.

It was planted by Thomas Jefferson at his Monticello home in Virginia and by founders of early American universities (later prompting the name Ivy League). But it really began to get a grip on America in the 1870s, when tourists came back from Britain with photos of ivy-covered campuses and castles.

Today ivy abounds in the United States, gracing everything from china to wallpaper to book jackets. And since this is America, there’s a group for it, too: the American Ivy Society (http://www.ivy.org).

Though UW-Madison isn’t as ivy-covered as some other campuses, you can find some fine effusions here. For example, ivy blankets much of Memorial Carillon in front of the Social Science Building. On a sunny day when a breeze is blowing, stand in front of the magnificent patch on the carillon’s west side.

This pulsing organism shimmers in the sun and ripples in the wind. Like quaking aspen, ivy is easily animated by air – a green excitability that somehow soothes the observer, a tremor that somehow calms.

Then walk downhill to the south side of Science Hall, where a single young ivy plant has started its climb. Luminous light green shoots curve over terra cotta tiles and the pinkish-gray foundation of volcanic rhyolite, creating a palette as rich as it is rare. The pairing of ivy and rhyolite shows what quiet visual glory comes from combining the botanical and the geological.

Ivy on walls is indeed a ballet, and the curtain is constantly up.