A Gardening Journal

Today in the Garden of a Lifetime: Acanthus Foliage in Spring

Acanthus mollis Jeff Albus fingers 050116 640 

 

In milder climates, bear's breeches is evergreen. Too bad: Those gardeners don't have the first-hand thrill of Spring's crop of emerging foliage.

 

The shiny, bright green foliages provides the ultimate in texture. Each leaf is a mass of crinkly pointy lobes tipped with spines that (at least to look at them) are channeling those of the fiercest English holly.

 

Acanthus mollis Jeff Albus fingers closer 050116 640

 

But the tactile experience is another story. Leaves of Acanthus mollis are stiff but harmless, more like those of kale or frisée than holly. To my knowledge, acanthus leaves aren't edible—except, alas, to snails—but they bring texture and (when mature) welcome size to the garden.

 

Acanthus mollis Jeff Albus fingers closer still 050116 640

 

For bear's breeches with foliage as prickly as it looks, grow the species Acanthus spinosus. It's on my wishlist. The other acanthus I currently grow is a hybrid of A. mollis and A. spinosus. Acanthus x 'Summer Beauty' splits the difference in terms of hardiness: A. mollis is hardy to zone 7, A. spinosus to zone 5, and 'Summer Beauty' to zone 6. A. spinosus also improves the tolerance of heat and humidity of any acanthus with A. mollis in its genes; that species is notorious for failing in southern gardens due to the hot weather.

 

But is the spininess of the foliage of 'Summer Beauty' also intermediate between that of A. mollis and A. spinosus? I'll use both my eyes and my fingers when I check on my emerging clumps.

 

  

Here's a close look at this distinctive cultivar, Acanthus mollis 'Jeff Albus', when it's in flower. 

 

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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