Hillview Acanthus News

Acanthus news

Wow! This January I saw, for the first time, Acanthus growing in the wild in Kenya, east Africa. Most of the Acanthus we have in our national collection are native to Europe but a few years ago, I read an article by Roy Lancaster (The RHS Garden magazine, Volume 126, part 1, January 2001), about a shrubby Ethiopian Acanthus with holly like leaves and vivid scarlet flowers. The hunt was on!

With the help of conservationist and plantaholic Mark Nicholson, I travelled to Nairobi and then “up country”, to his home where he is developing the grounds of a Methodist College into a natural area to accommodate native plants and birds.

In Mark’s garden was Acanthus pubescens. I collected seed from both these plants and hopefully some of them will germinate.

Last year in India, we saw several plants belonging to the Acanthacaea (it’s surprising how many there are once you start looking!) and, growing in the mangrove swamps, we saw Acanthus illicifolius but this wasn’t in flower. All these Acanthus have holly like leaves, only pricklier, and are shrubby in growth.

Whilst researching Acanthus in the Lindley library, I came across a book on gardening in India which described Acanthus montanus Frielings Sensation. After many hours on the internet, I found that this is used as a “conservatory” container plant in the USA. “A centerpiece in many international conservatories and display gardens since its introduction in the early 1980s, this brilliantly variegated shrub has recently gained a new group of admirers as a centerpiece in mixed urns and container gardens.”

Having found a nursery which can supply it, we hope to propagate this gem of a plant in the next year or two. It is a variegated selection of Acanthus, spotted by Ken Frieling, which has yellow marbled deeply cut leaf margins turning into rich patches of creamy ivory with age. Handsome foliage topped by spires of white bracts stained raspberry pink.

Back to European Acanthus, I have obtained Acanthus spinosus Ferguson’s form (below) which I consider to be the best flowering spinoffs selection.

It is a compact grower and the flower stems are compact and very showy. Another new acquisition is Acanthus mollis Sjaak. There is also a new variegated Acanthus mollis Pride of Morvan which has cream and yellow variegated deep glossy evergreen foliage which ages cream variegated. Spikes of pale purple and white hooded flowers, up to 1m. We have discovered a variegated plant amongst our own batch of Acanthus mollis but so far, propagation methods are unknown as root cuttings produce green leaved plants!

We have a new Acanthus, Acanthus greuterianus.

Acanthus in our collection and for sale

(see catalogue for prices and pictures)

Acanthus Candelabra
Acanthus caroli-alexandri

Introduced in 1886, this has a loose rosette of spiny lanceolate leaves up to 40cm long and 10cm across. Flowers in a dense spike, white often suffused rose. It has both a spread and a height of 140cm.

Acanthus dioscorides
Acanthus dioscoridis smooth leaved
Acanthus dioscoridis perringii

My personal favourite, this is a slow growing variety with incised grey/green foliage and pink flowers in June and July. Unusually, the flowers are scented! It will only reach about 30 cm in height, and not much wider. It is a native to Southern Turkey and hardy to minus 15°c, and typically lives on dry stony hillsides, and so is ideal in smaller gardens, and will happily cope in our drier summers.

Acanthus hirsutus JCA 109.700
Acanthus hirsutus roseus
Acanthus hirsutus syriacus (syn .syriacus)

This is a very unusual character, having yellow flowers, with green bracts. It tends to have a spreading habit, but will only get about 30cm wide, and not very much taller.

Acanthus hirsutus syriacus JCA 106.500
Acanthus hungaricus AL+JS 90097YU
Acanthus hungaricus (syn balcanicus syn longifolius)

This is a deciduous species which can reach 90cm wide, and 90cm tall. It has deeply lobed light-green foliage, and tall spikes of soft lilac flowers freely produced in late summer. Fragrant, it smells of roses.

Acanthus mollis

Introduced into English gardens in 1548.

Acanthus mollis free flowering

Free-flowering does “exactly what it says on the tin”. With large leaves, it reaches about 100cm tall, and around 100cm wide.

Acanthus mollis Hollard’s Gold

Spring foliage is golden green, often darkening later in the season. Slow growing when young but a magnificent foliage plant once established. Flowers are typical Acanthus purple and white.

Acanthus mollis Latifolius group

This has the largest leaves of all the Acanthus we have. Both the leaf stalk and the leaf itself are enormous!

Acanthus mollis (Latifolius group) Rue Ledan (syn. mollis Albus syn mollis Jefalbus, syn Jardin en Face)

Rue Ledan seems to have multiple personalities but all the synonyms refer to the same plant! Unlike most of the other Acanthus, it has white flowers with a white hood. It is evergreen, and the flowers are scented.

Acanthus mollis Sjaak
Acanthus sennii

Native to Ethiopia, we have (so far) found sennii to be hardy in this country. It has very prickly holly-like leaves, as well as having scarlet flowers. A real head turner!

Acanthus spinosus AGM

Introduced into English gardens in 1629, this species has deeply cut leaves which are more or less deciduous and tend to form a dense carpet. It covers an area of about 90cm, and can get to 120cm tall. It has the trademark mauve and white flowers.

Acanthus spinosus Lady Moore

This is an unusual variety with dark green leaves, heavily laced white in spring although not as showy later in the summer when the leaves become greener. Flowers dusky purple and white, reaches about 60cm in width, and 100cm or so tall.

Acanthus spinosus Royal Haughty

Deeply cut, but not spiny leaves. Reaches about 120cm, with a spread of 100cm. Although named Royal Haughty, I have been reliably infomed that it was NOT name after the RHS!

Acanthus spinosus spinosissimus group

Introduced into English gardens in 1629. Rather shy to flower, but beware of the extremely prickly foliage that makes holly look innocuous! A very handsome foliage plant. Slow growing.

Acanthus Summer Beauty (syn.mollis Summerdance)

This plant has very long spikes of widely spaced purple and white flowers in late summer, around 100cm tall and wide. Seed pods look like dates.

General information

Acanthus, when looked up in the dictionary, has a number of meanings.

  1. Acanthus is a community on Cedar Lake, in north-eastern Ontario.
  2. Acanthus describes ornamentation in the capitols of the Corinthian and Composite orders which depicts or resembles foliage of the Acanthus plant. Acanthus motifs appear extensively in Medieval, Renaissance artwork, particularly in sculpture and wood carving and friezes. It is said that Callimachos lost his daughter, and set a basket of flowers on her grave, with a tile to keep the wind from blowing it away. The next time he went to visit the grave an acanthus had sprung up around the basket, which so struck the fancy of the architect that he introduced the design in his buildings.
  3. Acanthus is the name of an ancient Greek City.
  4. Acantha was a nymph in greek mythology, associated with the Acanthus plant. He had a sister, Acanthis.
  5. Acanthus is both a common name and a genus of flowering plant in the family Acanthaceae. Acanthus, genus name, from Greek Akanthos, thorn plant, from acanthi, thorn.

It is the last meaning that describes our national collection.

Acanthus has the common name “Bear’s Breeches”. A Tudor writer, Turner, called it “Branke Ursine” but why this common name is used is anyone’s guess. It is, however, a very well known and used common name.

Acanthus are native to southern Europe, especially Turkey and there are many tropical Acanthus found in the mangrove swamps of Asia and the tropical forests of Africa.

Acanthus have been lurking in English gardens for sometime longer than you may expect! The complete herbal and English physician enlarged cites acanthus as an herb, with several medicinal properties. These include:-

“The leaves being boiled and used in clysters, is excellent good to mollify the belly. The decoction drank inwardly, is excellent and good for the bloody-flux.”

“The leaves, being bruised or rather boiled and applied like a poultice are excellent good to unite broken bones and strengthen joints that have been put out. The decoction of either leaves or roots being drank, and the decoction of leaves applied to the place, is good for the king’s evil that is broken and runs; for by the influence of the moon, it revives the ends of the veins which are relaxed.”

“There is scarce a better remedy to be applied to such places are burnt with fire that this is, for it fetches out the fire, and heals it without a scar.”

Cultivation and position

New Flora and Silva, 1928
…”Recommend Acanthus Spinosus, Mollis and Latifolius, a position to site them is in the Lawn as a focal point.”

A further letter praises Caroli-Alexander and Perringii, although the author of the letter does point out that wood lice have a taste for the leaves of the latter!

As a general rule, Acanthus grow in well drained soils – they don’t like to be sitting in water, especially during winter. The herbaceous species are native to dry rocky hills and make striking border plants in cool temperate zones. They thrive equally well in both sun and dense shade, although they tend to flower more prolifically in sun and are slightly more compact whilst they produce more and larger leaves in shade.

Most of the Acanthus we grow, are plants which have handsome basal leaves from which emerge densely packed spikes of hooded flowers. Some have fragrant flowers and the flower spikes are useful, when dried, for winter decoration.

EA Bowles once said “Acanthus will sometimes sulk for years after planting (or replanting), but once they forgive you they ramp, while every atom of broken rootlet left in a two foot hole will sprout up into stronger plants than those removed”.

Plant Acanthus in a position where you want them to remain as once established, they are hard to eradicate! They make excellent specimen plants in tubs and pots.

As a general rule, acanthus grow in well drained soils – they don’t like to be sitting in water, especially during winter. They thrive equally well in both sun and dense shade, although they tend to flower more prolifically in sun and are slightly more compact whilst they produce more and larger leaves in shade.

Mildew can be a problem with large crowded Acanthus plants but if cut down, the leaves soon re-sprout.