Updated: Aug 18, 2021
Students learning the history of landscape architecture and architecture will at some point learn about the three Classical Orders. From Greece, this means understanding the stylistic proportions of Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns (the Romans would add Tuscan and Composite). Without delving too deeply into design history, we can look into one detail in particular, which is the decorative leaf motif found on Corinthian columns (shown at left). This leaf is from the Acanthus, our subject for this post, long thought to symbolize immortality or an enduring life. Fitting. Stone columns and Greek architecture have certainly lasted a long time, but could it also reference the longevity of the plant itself?
We planted Acanthus mollis at the end of the cul-de-sac where I lived in Palo Alto. We rarely watered it; at summer's end its withered flower stocks stood still over yellowed leaves lying flat on the ground. Once winter rains returned, new growth would emerge more prolifically than the previous year...lush, glossy, and exotic looking. For a while, that bear's breech continued to thrive well after my parents moved away, illustrating its durability.
A. mollis can be found in full sun in cooler regions along the coast or around the San Francisco Bay, but it mostly thrives in shadier locations. In a way, this plant is practically expected for a tropical vibe design, and for many its low care and sturdiness is highly desirable. Compatible plants may include select palms, Bergenia, and mounding Geraniums to complete the look....and maybe a few Corinthian columns for good measure. It is equally at home en masse in a modern planter design with the flower stalks silhouetted against a clean wall.
Botanical Name: Acanthus mollis
Acanthus: Greek, akantha for spiny leaves
Mollis: Having soft hairs
Common Name: Bear's breech
Family Name: Acanthaceae
Origin: Southern Europe, Mediterranean
Positioning: Middle ground
Garden Themes: Mediterranean, sub-tropical/tropical, perennial, cutting, shade
Uses: Border, mass
Type: Evergreen perennial (in mild climates)
Form: Mound, arching
Size: 3' tall and spreading; up to 5' with blooms
Outstanding Feature(s): Flower, foliage
Margin: Deeply lobed
Color: Dark green
Surface: Smooth, glossy
Flower: Summer. Large, 3'-5' tall spikes of white, hooded flowers, similar to snapdragons in form with rose-purple bracts.
Fruit: Summer to fall. Brown capsules remain on flower spikes.
cultural requirements, tolerances & problems
Sunset Zones: 5-24
USDA Zones: 7-10
Light: Sun in cooler regions, shade in hot inland areas
WUCOLS SF Bay Area Hydro Zone: Moderate (tolerates low but will wilt and go nearly dormant until hydrated)
Texture: Sand, loam, clay, well composted
Moisture Retention: Well-drained
Problems: Snails and slugs; slowly spreads but may become excessive
Branch Strength: N/A
Insects: Tent caterpillars
Disease: Powdery mildew
citations & attributions
Bayton, R. (2019). The Royal Horticultural Society's the Gardener's Botanical: An Encyclopedia of Latin Plant Names. London: Mitchell Beazley.
Norris Brenzel, K. (Ed.). (2012). The New Sunset Western Garden Book. New York: Time Home Entertainment, Inc.
Plant Finder. "Acanthus mollis." Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis. Accessed on August 5, 2021, from https://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=275338&isprofile=0&.
Water Use Classification of Landscape Species. "WUCOLS IV Plant List." University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Davis. Accessed on August 5, 2021, from https://ucanr.edu/sites/WUCOLS/Download_WUCOLS_IV_List/.
Acanthus in Bloom: "Acanthus mollis5." by KENPEI is licensed under Wikimedia Commons.
Acanthus Capsules: "Seeds of Acanthus mollis." by Schnobby is licensed under Wikimedia Commons.
Flower Detail: "Acanthus mollis (2)." by Douglas Sprott is licensed under flickr.
Leaf and Container Plant photos by TELCS.