A Gardening Journal

Today in the Garden of a Lifetime: Acanthus in Bloom

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I'll never forget a trip to Los Angeles, when I found myself walking past massive clumps of acanthus in full bloom. In such a balmy climate, where acanthus is evergreen and can grow year-round, the spikes were as tall as I was. But my envy exceeded my joy. Acanthus mollis is tricky where I garden in southern New England. Here, it's an achievement just to establish a clump of foliage. Flowering is the exception, not the rule.

 

But this year, even after a particularly severe Winter, flower it does. I'd like to think the reason is my heroic "extreme mulching" last Fall, which I detail in the post for another acanthus cultivar, 'Summer Beauty'.

 

The single, three-lobed petal of this cultivar, 'Jeff Albus', is the usual white but, because the two bracts that enclose it are green, not reddish purple, this form is more versatile. In New England, acanthus usually flowers in Summer, not the Spring of milder climes, so it's more practical if Summer flowers can mix easily with, well, whatever other colors you've managed to bring on despite the heat and drought. By late July, they are likely to favor yellow, red, and orange. White and green can mix with almost any colors, but reddish purple is most at home with pinks and blues. While these are, of course, possible all season (think dahlias, hydrangeas, bush clovers, and impatiens), they are inescapable and even predominant in Spring (roses, peonies, magnolias, rhodies, and azaleas).

 

Part of the frisson of acanthus flowers is their carnivorous vibe: The bracts are spiny, and arrayed one atop the other like predatory jaws. The white petal looks either like a licking-its-chops tongue, or the back end of the butterfly or moth that is the flower's latest meal. 

 

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Lifting up the snout of the beast to peer inside, the interior seems only more alarming. The four whiskery, thick-stemmed stamens are arrayed stiffly; their forward orientation and precise array suggest that they might spit fire or project some sort of death ray.

 

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In reality, acanthus isn't carnivorous, nor do its flowers zap or spit. The bracts never open very far, so it takes some muscle to wiggle into the interior of the flower to rummage around for pollen and, deep at the back, reach the nectar. But once the pollinator is inside, the domed upper bract provides shelter as well as privacy, so the pollinator and flower can interact at length.

 

The accommodations certainly aren't roomy. The flowers would seem to be selecting, then, for pollinators that are powerful but also have relatively compact wings that are tightly held to the body when not in use. Bees manage just fine. 

 

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A stray stem of 'Glory of the Andes' alstroemeria—also none too hardy here, and also needing perfect drainage in Winter—is a mediocre companion: Its yellow petals and orange stamens don't create a color link to the white and green acanthus. Worse, its flowers' cheerful open structure seems juvenile compared to the creepy closed-in boudoir that the acanthus bracts create for their buzzing visitors. At the least, consider any plant that includes a dash of white. Better still, another flower whose morals, so to speak, seem as loose as those of the acanthus. 'Black Forest' callas, say, whose flowers are so dark they are nearly ebony, and whose leaves have white spots.

 

Here's how to grow another acanthus cultivar, 'Summer Beauty'. It's a bit hardier but, even so, still benefits from Winter protection north of New York City. Instead of the green bracts of 'Jeff Albus', it has the typical reddish-purple ones.

 
 
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