If you have the space in your garden this is one plant to choose.
Acanthus mollis is a robust herbaceous perennial with handsome, lobed foliage and tall, erect racemes of two-lipped flowers with colourful bracts. It is a vigorous, hardy plant with large, glossy dark green leaves and is a true architectural beauty.
Acanthus mollis takes about two years to establish itself but then goes from strength to strength and can grow to over five feet tall. In spring the leaves spring up from ground level in a robust whorl. In late summer, the flower stalks rise elegantly from their centre, tall racemes of 30 or so white flowers appear, each with dusky purple bracts. Its impressive flowers last for weeks and give a welcome vertical component to garden designs.
Acanthus mollis has an interesting history, it was used as a medicinal herb in earlier days. If you visit the medicinal herb gardens from old monasteries in Europe you'll always find Acanthus still growing.
The acanthus leaf is often used as a motive in architecture and art through ages. The representation of the Acanthus leaves on the capitals of the Corinthian pillars is familiar to us all and a beautiful example is still seen at the Monument of Lysicratis in Athens.
Acanthus became a symbol for immortality, for this reason it was often used in funereal art (gravestones etc.) Sometimes it’s a symbol that stands for gentle courage because of its soft leaves.
The lush green leaves, the strong flower, it is hard not to be impressed by this plant that has seen the entire history of our species.
Sowing: Late summer/autumn or late winter/late spring
Sow at temperatures of 10 to 13°C (50 to 55°F) in a peaty mix. Water from the base of the tray, keeping the compost moist but not wet at all times. Germination between 10 to 21 days. Prick out each seedling once it has its first set of true leaves, transplant into 7.5cm (3in) pots or trays to grow on.
Plant out in spring into well drained soil. Gradually acclimatise to outdoor conditions for 10 to 15 days before planting out. The plant will bloom in its second year.
Acanthus require deep, fertile, well drained soils in a sheltered position. They perform best in a sunny or lightly shaded position, they will tolerate deep shade, but produce fewer or no flower spikes. They can cope with low temperatures as long as their tap roots are established and drainage is good. Cover with a protective mulch for the first two winters.
Water in hot dry weather, if moisture is not maintained its soft leaves can droop. The leaves are very attractive to slugs, snails and leaf-eating insects, controls may be necessary, particularly in wet weather.
Apply a slow, controlled release fertiliser around the base of the plant during the plants growing season to reduce fertiliser burning on the leaves. An acanthus grown in our climate only sets a few viable seeds per spike, which look like little wrinkled prunes. In the wild they'd be propelled 6m (20ft) or more when the capsule splits. Harvest seeds in late winter and sow in spring. Cut the stems back to almost ground level after flowering.
Avoid disturbing the root system until the plants becomes overcrowded. Plants can be divided in spring or autumn but can be divided successfully at almost any time if kept well-watered afterwards. Division is usually most successful while plants aren’t in active growth.
The flowers can be dried and make interesting focal or secondary flowers in dried arrangements.
To dry, cut the flower at the height of bloom and hang upside down in a cool, dark place to dry. If dried correctly they will hold their colour well and will last about a year before browning.
Architectural, Borders and Beds, Drought Resistant, Flower Arranging, Low Maintenance or Mediterranean.
These imposing plants need a starring role, flanking steps or in the forefront of a border. Don't allow them anywhere near your favourite smaller plants. The statuesque Crocosmia Lucifer has searing red flowers and sword-shaped, pleated leaves and forms a strong, branching seed head in winter. Phlomis russeliana produces stiff stems of two-tone yellow flowers, followed by whorled seed heads. All three have good winter silhouettes, sheltering many ladybirds, that can be left until early spring without fear of flopping.
Native to the Mediterranean region from Portugal and northwest Africa east to Croatia, there are 30 species worldwide. Acanthus is a horticultural survivor from Ancient Greek and Roman times and is one of the earliest cultivated species.
It is thought that the two most widely grown, Acanthus spinosus and Acanthus mollis, were bought from the Mediterranean by the Romans, who boiled the roots for poultices to cure burns, sprains, gout and baldness. They also used the plants ornamentally to line paths.
Acanthus survived in monastery gardens after the Roman retreat and is listed in De Naturis Rerum (c 1190) by Alexander Neckham, who was Abbot of Cirencester and foster brother of Richard the Lionheart. Both plants were later lost to cultivation, then reintroduced - Acanthus mollis in 1548 and A. spinosus in 1629. These two species have produced natural hybrids, which are listed as A. spinosus Spinosissimus Group.
These two species are similar. Acanthus spinosus has more ragged, deeply cut leaves, while Acanthus mollis is bigger and has shinier leaves. The flowers, however, are quite similar in the two species, as are the soil, sun, and temperature requirements. Both are admired as lovely architectural specimens.
Common to all perennial acanthus, the bracts give the plant its name. Acanthus is taken from Akantha the Greek word for thorn. It is also the name of a nymph, loved by Apollo, he transformed her later in a Acanthus flower.
The species name mollis means 'soft' referring to the large soft leaves.
It is commonly known as Bear's Breeches. While at face value the name may not make much sense it is believed to be a corruption from its 17th century Cornish name of Brankursine. Brankursine means bear’s claws and relates to the shape of its flowers. It is also said that it could be derived from Berber rather than bear and breach meaning hole, chasm or large gap – in which case the name could refer to the deeply cut leaves that are evergreen through most winters.
In some places it is also referred to as the Oyster Plant, which most likely refers to the white, flattened flowers.
William Morris – Acanthus Leaf Wallpaper:
William Morris (1834-1896) was an English textile designer, artist, writer, and socialist associated the English Arts and Crafts Movement. One of his most famous prints of the Acanthus Leaf was produced around 1875. It is important to recognise that his floral patterned wallpaper was actually a radical manifesto.
Morris, along with other designers played out a dramatic opposition to the cultural effects of the Industrial Revolution through the design of household furniture and textiles. He rejected the tawdry industrial manufacture of decorative arts and architecture in favour of a return to hand-craftsmanship, creating art that was both affordable and hand-made.
William Morris revived medieval manufacturing techniques that re-instated the role of the craftsman over the machine and raised artisans to the status of artists.
Christopher Lloyd - “The Acanthus Leaf used as the symbol of NADFAS”
NADFAS is the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts who, in 2007 updated their logo with a graphical representation of an acanthus leaf. The following is taken from the address of NADFAS President Christopher Lloyd at the AGM held on 9th May 2007 at Kensington Town Hall, London.
I know it is a little long, but bear with me; it gives a real understanding of the history of the acanthus leaf used as a motif - and it is far more eloquent than I could ever write.
“The founders of NADFAS chose the acanthus as a symbol for its activities. This was a very clever choice. The acanthus leaf is one of the most widely used decorative motifs found in art extending from antiquity right up to the late nineteenth century and arguably even beyond. Although botanical in origin, its application was purely imaginary and its use can be traced in architecture, sculpture, illuminated manuscripts, furniture, metalwork, woodwork, silverware, ceramics, stucco and wallpaper.
According to the Roman writer Vitruvius who compiled his important treatise, De Architectura, in the first century BC, the decorative possibilities of the acanthus were first realised in the origination of the Corinthian capital and this architectural usage was diversified in early Christian and Byzantine art. It is omnipresent in Italian Renaissance art, particularly in the work of Filippo Brunelleschi who used so skillfully in the naves of his churches S. Lorenzo and S. Spirito in Florence. One of the finest examples in the early Italian Renaissance is the double tomb of Piero and Giovanni de’ Medici by Andrea Verrocchio commissioned by Lorenzo il Magnifico for the Old Sacristy of S. Lorenzo: this combines bronze with porphyry and marble in a compelling abstract idiom.
The widespread dominance of the acanthus motif in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was due to pattern books used by craftsmen throughout Europe. Apprentices were trained by copying acanthus motifs from such pattern books to the extent that it became totally absorbed into the universal language of interior design as well as architecture. William Morris used it for one of his famous wallpapers and Christopher Dresser incorporated it into his various wares, both during the late nineteenth century.
A counterblast came from A.W.N. Pugin who objected to the use of what he regarded as essentially a pagan motif in a Christian context. This led to his fulminations in his book entitled True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841) and his more famous Contrasts of the same year. Owen Jones, too, in his Grammar of Ornament (1856) complained about the overuse of the acanthus. Even so it could not be so easily expunged by mere polemics or by the outcries of purists. And so it is possible to see the acanthus as a formative influence on much wider movements such as Art Nouveau and Art Deco in which guise it pops up again in the work of Rene Lalique.
Scholars have also been infatuated by the acanthus. They have occupied themselves by tracing its stylistic development and arguing about its formal significance. The Viennese curator Alois Riegl began the discussion as early as 1893 in a classic book (entitled Stilfragen) that is the starting point for the modern study of the history of ornament. The greatly respected medievalist Joan Evans ( the much younger half-sister of Arthur Evans who excavated Knossos) devoted space to the acanthus in her book Pattern, a Study of Ornament in Western Europe from 1180-1900 (1931); and Sir Ernst Gombrich in the Sense of Order (1979) introduced the subject to an unsuspecting younger audience. What might appear at first sight, therefore, to be an abstruse byway in the history of art really belongs to the mainstream.
You will appreciate why the choice of the acanthus symbol for NADFAS was both appropriate and inspired. Like the acanthus you have a practical application; like the acanthus you have survived the test of time and go from strength to strength; like the acanthus you are ubiquitous not just in the United Kingdom but on mainland Europe and even much further a field in such places as Australia; and like the acanthus you are versatile in what you do. Practicality and durability, together with ubiquity and versatility defines NADFAS very neatly: it is a formidable combination. The acanthus serves our purposes brilliantly.”
9th May 2007
- Additional Information
Packet Size 5 seeds Family Acanthaceae Genus Acanthus Species mollis Common Name Bears Breeches, Oyster Plant Hardiness Hardy Perennial Flowers Dusky Purple and White in Summer Foliage Glossy, dark green, deeply cut. Height 100 to 150cm (3 to 5ft) in 2 to 5 years Spread 120cm (4ft) Position Full Sun to Partial shade Soil Tolerant of most well drained fertile soil Time to Sow Sow in late winter/late spring or late summer/autumn. Germination 21 to 25 days