Wednesday Weed – Acanthus (Bear’s Breeches)

Bear’s Breeches (Acanthus mollis)

Dear Readers, what a striking plant this is, with its dark brown bracts and gently striped white flowers! Although it does grow wild in some parts of the UK (and was probably introduced from Italy in the 16th Century), in East Finchley it is confined to gardens. It is what many gardening books call an ‘architectural plant’, which generally means something strident and upstanding, but Acanthus has played a part in the architecture of the Classical world in a much more direct way. The leaves of the plant are magnificent in their own right, as you can see from the photograph below. The name ‘Acanthus’ comes from the Greek for ‘thorn’, probably because of the spiky leaves and seed capsule, but the species name ‘mollis’ means ‘soft’, maybe to distinguish this plant from it’s much spikier relatives. I assume that the name ‘bear’s breeches’ comes from the way that the flowers look like trouser legs protruding from the bear-coloured bracts, but why it is also sometimes called ‘oyster plant’ I have no idea.

Photo One by By Hectonichus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15808180

Bear’s breeches leaf (Photo One)

The leaves were the inspiration for the top part of the Corinthian columns (the Capital) used in Greek buildings from the  5th Century BCE. The design is attributed to the architect Callimachus, who is said to have seen Acanthus leaves growing around some statuary on a grave and been struck by the beauty of the accidental arrangement.  As the plant is widespread throughout the Mediterranean, it is not surprising that it became synonymous with this particular era and style.

Photo Two by By Cimoi [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Corinthian column from the Grand Moszue in Kairouan, Tunisia (Photo Two)

Photo Three by By Original uploader was Wetman at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3846707

Wild Acanthus growing amidst the ruins on the Palatine Hill in Rome (Photo Three)

Virgil states that Helen of Troy wore a dress embroidered with Acanthus leaves, and I suspect that she looked very good in it, though if legend is to be believed she’d have looked good in a jute sack.  William Morris was also very taken with the leaves as a design for his fabrics and wallpaper.

Photo Four by Plum Leaf at https://www.flickr.com/photos/eoskins/25665188540

Acanthus leaf wallpaper by William Morris (Photo Four)

The design became so widespread that it even reached the post boxes of England during the Victorian era. No wonder that, in the Language of Flowers, an Acanthus means ‘art’.

Photo Five by By © Andrew Dunn - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=125504

A Penfold-design post box in Cambridge (1866-79) with Acanthus leaf motif on the top (Photo Five)

Acanthus is what is known as entomophilous (or ‘insect-loving’), and is pollinated by big, heavy insects such as bumblebees, who are the only ones strong enough to force their way into the flower. The plant also spreads by means of its rhizomes, and can be quite invasive in the right conditions. It is a remarkably unfussy plant, happy in shade or in drought, and it certainly packs a punch appearance-wise. I need to have a garden about three times as large as my current one to accommodate all these plants that I keep finding out about.

Medicinally, the leaves were used as a poultice for burns and scalds, sprains and dislocations. Tea made from the leaves was also used to soothe digestive and urinary upsets.

I can find no references to anybody (except snails and slugs) eating the leaves, though they don’t appear to be poisonous either. Better to stick to that bag of curly kale, I think.

And finally, here’s a poem, to balance the Ted Hughes that I posted a few weeks ago. This is by Sylvia Plath. I suspect she might have invented the word ‘Acanthine’, and this poem is a remarkable evocation of Plath’s father, who died when she was eight years old. You could say that she searched for him, in vain, for the rest of her life.

The Colossus by Sylvia Plath

I shall never get you put together entirely,
Pieced, glued, and properly jointed.
Mule-bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles
Proceed from your great lips.
It’s worse than a barnyard.
 
Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle,
Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other.
Thirty years now I have labored
To dredge the silt from your throat.
I am none the wiser.
 
Scaling little ladders with glue pots and pails of lysol
I crawl like an ant in mourning
Over the weedy acres of your brow
To mend the immense skull plates and clear
The bald, white tumuli of your eyes.
 
A blue sky out of the Oresteia
Arches above us. O father, all by yourself
You are pithy and historical as the Roman Forum.
I open my lunch on a hill of black cypress.
Your fluted bones and acanthine hair are littered
 
In their old anarchy to the horizon-line.
It would take more than a lightning-stroke
To create such a ruin.
Nights, I squat in the cornucopia
Of your left ear, out of the wind,
 
Counting the red stars and those of plum-color.
The sun rises under the pillar of your tongue.
My hours are married to shadow.
No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel
On the blank stones of the landing.

 

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Hectonichus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15808180

Photo Two by By Cimoi [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by By Original uploader was Wetman at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3846707

Photo Four by Plum Leaf at https://www.flickr.com/photos/eoskins/25665188540

Photo Five by By © Andrew Dunn – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=125504

2 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Acanthus (Bear’s Breeches)

  1. Laurin Lindsey

    I have been attracted to Acanthus (Bear’s Breeches) for a long time. If I had room I would plant it in my garden. I like knowing more of its history and use in art and architecture.

    Reply
  2. tonytomeo

    It can be quite a tough weed. It does quite well in the shade of the redwood forests. Your description is very similar to how we learned about it in school. I distinctly remember the term ‘architectural’. The State Capitol in Sacramento is outfitted with the acanthus motif, just like such buildings in Europe are.

    Reply

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