A 17th century Gouache on parchment image of acanthus by Johannes Simon Holtzbecher

This week I am starting the first entry in my winter project: create a plant profile for each garden plant we feature in the various MacKenzie Childs gardens. My hope is to create a property personal data base of everything I have planted. This feature should provide visitors who are interested in knowing more about the specific choices I have made, what each plant’s care needs are, and in what gardens that plant can be found.

A Roman example of the use of acanthus leaves in stone carvings

Acanthus mollis, common name, Bear’s Breeches, is an ancient plant that originated in Southern Europe. The leaves of Acanthus have been immortalized in the sculpted designs of Greek Corinthian columns as far back as the fifth century B.C. The 10 inch leaves have been featured in carvings and artwork for centuries.

Acanthus leaves carved into the Baroque capitals on the facade of the Duomo di Siricusa in Sicily

It is a large, statuesque plant that spreads three feet and has flowering stalks shooting up to four feet. According to Armitage, who calls the spiky flowers lovely, and somewhat unnerving, it thrives in moist, rich soil but is drought tolerant once established. It is one of those amenable plants that will grow in partial sun and full sun. The glossy leaves are said to be evergreen but they will get quite tattered in a cold climate like ours (USDA zone 5).

It is easy to see the appeal of the glossy leaves


Around here, acanthus is a bit hard to find. I have had plant envy since my undergrad days at Cornell where the Plantations had the stunning (and sharp) A. spinosus as part of the groundcover collection. I was able to buy a plant for my home garden twenty years ago and nurtured it into a presentable colony before I moved. The leaves are reminiscent of Scotch Thistle, our emblem; since the plants are much more desirable and much less invasive that Scotch thistle, I have been on a plant quest since I began designing the property gardens. I was not able to find it in MacKenzie-Childs quantities until last spring. We planted 50 plugs into the was black hole that is the white garden with hopes that it would believe it was  in a zone 6 garden and would survive. I will update this spring.

William Morris Acanthus Wallpaper

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2 Responses to Plant Profile: Acanthus mollis

  1. Barbara Littlefair says:

    Hi Mariann Did you ever find the time to list in your blog your favorite tools and favorite annual varieties you rely on each year, When our Cornell Campus Club Gardening Group visited with you you had mentioned that you would list your favorite gardening tools and where one could get them, and the names of the annual Salvia you used in most of your beds, as well as particular varieties of plants you had in your White garden. I don’t seem to ever get ahead this year re gardeniing, every time I get a free half day or so, it’s so hot I can’t stand being out there or we’ve had such heavy rain everything is waterlogged. I guess one good thing is that the weeds pull out more easily after a rain.

    Have a good Summer. Regards, Barbara

    • Mariann says:

      Hi Barbara! No, I never did get a chance to blog about the tools this winter. Various projects kept me busy and I have had a minor case of writer’s block. I will get our staff photographer to get some shots of my tools and do a post on them. Very likely it will be after the barn sale! I share your frustration at being unable to get ahead this year. My angst is tempered by how much I LOVE rain and pulling weeds after a good rain. Hoses and I are sworn enemies so it is such a relief to have lovely, green lawns and gardens without the daily water system set up. That said, I truly would like to get out to the gardens before all the well watered weeds entirely take over. Enjoy your summer as well. Hope to see you soon–Mariann