They're tall. They're spiky. Their flowers range from a creamy white to soft pink and are draped with lovely purple sheaths. And their leaves are a dark, shiny green.
Acanthus mollis, known colloquially as Bear's Breech or Bear's Breeches are a sight to behold in any garden, and if you live in any of the hardiness zones 7 to 10, with a little careful tending, they would make a welcome addition.
An Acanthus Mollis By Any Other Name
The etymology of Acanthus mollis results in an interesting oxymoron. Acanthus is the Latin version of a Greek word that translates loosely as "sharp flower." Mollis, however, translates to "soft, weak, or tender." Is it sharp? It certainly is spiky in appearance and the purple bracts are known to be thorny. Or is it soft? The leaves do have that feel. Whatever way one chooses to look at it, however, Acanthus mollis is still a beautiful plant.
While on the subject of beautiful plants, it is not uncommon for them to evoke multiple images amongst their admirers. Thus, Bear's Breech and Bear's Breeches aren't the only nicknames for this elegant herbaceous shrub from the Acanthaceae family. Acanthus mollis is also known as:
How this perennial acquired some of its many names has been the subject of much discussion among scholars. Some given names seem to have obvious explanations, while others not so much. For example, bearsfoot and oakleaf are apt descriptions of the foliage, and the flowers do bear a resemblance to some varieties of orchids.
There seems to be little agreement, however, about how it obtained the bear's breeches moniker, with some blame put on French gardeners who may have misheard the Medieval Latin name branca for a similar word in French meaning breeches. But who knows? And then, of course, there's Artist's Acanthus. What's that all about?
Acanthus Mollis in the Arts
Acanthus mollis has the unique distinction of being set in stone. Literally. For this we owe thanks to fifth century B.C. Greek sculptor and architect Callimachus who carved the likenesses of acanthus leaves and scrolls into the capitals or tops of what became known as Corinthian-style columns.
This design element caught like wildfire with varying renditions of the motif later spreading to columns, moldings and friezes in Roman, Byzantine, and Gothic architecture. It became popular in furniture decoration during the Renaissance period and even found its way into Greek Revival architecture in America. Acanthus leaf motifs have also been depicted in jewelry and clothing design.
To the ancient Greeks, acanthus leaves symbolized enduring life and immortality, and because of sculptors and architects throughout the ages, they have helped prove it true. To this day acanthus leaf carvings have survived thousands of years in both old and modern cities throughout the world.
The Origins of Bear's Breeches
Bear's Breeches are native to the Mediterranean region of Europe, its islands and northwestern Africa, and they flourish in similar climates, such as Australia and New Zealand. They can be found growing naturally along roads, riverbanks and on rocky hillsides.
Bear's Breeches Characteristics
Bear's Breeches are recognizable for their striking three to six foot upright spires of creamy white to pink flowers with hoods or purple bracts that appear in mid to late summer. Their spread is typically three to six feet also. Their jagged, glossy, deep green foliage resembling that of oak leaves is likewise remarkable.
At their base, the plants form a wide rosette of smooth, dense, deeply-lobed leaves from which single spires are born. The spires each bear about 100 to 120 flowers each with a spiny purple bract or modified leaf. These tubular flowers have been compared in shape and form to that of snapdragons.
The fruits of Acanthus mollis are produced from November to May and are made up of two-piece capsules containing two to four dark-brown, oval-shaped seeds, each about 2.5 inches long. When ripe, these capsules split open casting seeds around the parent plant.
Bear's breeches are pollinated by bees which are attracted to the colorful bracts. However, only bumblebees or other types large enough to push their way between the upper and lower sepals to get to the tubular flowers' nectar are successful. Although slow growing, the plants spread easily and often aggressively via underground rhizomes.
Bear's Breeches thrive in full sun or partial shade, but not too much shade or they may not flower well. They do best in well-drained, normal, sandy or clay soils, and while they prefer frequent watering, they also tend to be drought tolerant and not all that particular about soil pH. Adding a side dressing of compost annually will help keep plants in good health. Because of their spread, these leafy, mound-forming perennials are best planted two to three feet apart.
Propagation and Care
Although plants can be established from seed, propagation is more easily accomplished by cutting off pieces of rootstalk that have discernible leaf buds in the fall or the spring, or taking root cuttings in late fall. Three-inch long root sections should be planted vertically in a mix made specifically for cuttings.
Bear's Breeches are known to spread readily by small root sections and can easily take over a garden bed and crowd out smaller plants if not kept under control. In fact, they are considered an invasive species in some parts of the United States. Installing deep root barriers or planting them in bottomless containers can help to prevent unwanted propagation. Cutting the flower stems before seeds ripen will also help to prevent seedlings from starting as well as encourage new foliage.
If you do choose to start these plants from ripened seed, soak them first in water for a couple of days then plant them in a seed mix about one-quarter inch deep. The optimum temperature should be 50 to 55 degrees F, and sprouts can be expected to appear in 21 to 25 days. Slow growing, Bear's Breeches may take several years to flower.
Where to Plant Acanthus Mollis
Because of its stately height and interesting characteristics, Acanthus mollis is often used as an architectural plant installed in linear fashion across building fronts and as an overall border. They are equally attractive in both formal and cottage gardens. The blooms are not always reliable, flowering in some years and behaving disappointingly the next. However, this is rarely a deterrent as many gardeners choose Acanthus mollis for its interesting foliage alone.
In colder climates, Acanthus mollis can be grown indoors in large containers kept in cool, sunny areas. They are attractive in dried flower arrangements and make excellent additions to cut flower bouquets. Of course, they are a natural in Mediterranean gardens and in their native region are often planted under olive trees.
Varieties and Companion Plants
There are about thirty plants that make up the Acanthus genus. Popular varieties of Acanthus mollis include Tasmanian Angel, recognizable for its variegated, often mottled basal leaves, and Hungarian Bear's Breech, known for its somewhat showier leaves and its compactness.
Whitewater is also recognized for its variegated foliage as well as its luminosity. Hollard's Gold, also known as Fielding's Gold and New Zealand Gold, is a common cultivar featuring broad leaves in golden green. Acanthus spinosus is a variety that reaches about four feet in height with leaves that are decidedly narrower in comparison to Acanthus mollis.
Possibly because of its imposing nature, Bear's Breeches are sometimes planted as a specimen or in small groupings. However, they also pair well with ornamental grasses, Milky Bellflowers, Yellow Loosestrife, Gaura and Crocosmia.
Are Bears Breeches Susceptible to Pests and Diseases?
Pests aren't generally a problem for Bear's Breeches, but their low-growing, dense foliage isn't just appealing to humans. Slugs and snails also find them attractive places for settling down and dining out, particularly if the soil below is moist. Aphids, which are often a problem for many plant species, can also be troublesome.
As for disease, Bear's Breeches are susceptible to bacterial leaf spot, noticeable by dark, spotted discolorations on leaves. This disease is brought on by wet, cool conditions and in some cases can kill foliage all together. Bear's Breeches are also susceptible to powdery mildew and fungal leaf spot diseases. Each of these can be treated by proper aeration and with fungicides.
Acanthus mollis has long been useful as a medicinal herb. Why is this even a surprise? Native Americans recognize the plant for its anti-venom qualities. Additionally, crushed leaves from the plant have been made into poultices as a remedy for burns and preventing scarring. A remarkable plant, it is used to make a paste that when applied to dislocated joints helps to relax and tighten muscles and ligaments and bring on healing. It is also taken internally as a treatment for digestive problems.