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Bear's Breeches (Acanthus Mollis), an Ancient Perennial

Dolores has landscaped for private clients, maintained one client's small orchid collection, and keeps 30 houseplants.

Bear's Breeches (Acanthus Mollis)

Bear's Breeches (Acanthus Mollis)

Bear's Breeches Draws Attention and Evokes Strong Emotions

Bear's breeches (Acanthus mollis) is a handsome herbaceous perennial that can add interest to a garden. Also called the oyster plant, its beautiful leaves and tall spikes of flowers are quite dramatic. The plant is low maintenance and deer resistant.

Both glorified and vilified, bear's breeches seem to draw attention and evoke strong emotions. Some gardeners love it, while others curse its sometimes invasive habit.

Occasionally, people assume that their own experience with any particular plant will be the same for everyone. But as with many plants, its placement in a garden and its success depends on the area in which you live, your climate, moisture, and drainage.

Bear's breeches grow from 30–72 inches tall, with foliage spreading to 30 inches wide. The deeply lobed, shiny, dark green leaves arch gracefully on stems that resemble rhubarb.

In late spring or early summer, Bear's breeches sends up a tall spike that bears tubular, snapdragon-like flowers in a mixture of creamy white, purple or lilac with a splash of rosy pink. The flowers are long lasting and retain some color when dried.

Corinthian Column

Corinthian Column

Bear's Breeches as a Design Motif

Native to Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean region, bear's breeches have been a popular design motif for thousands of years. The beautiful leaves are seen in architecture, most notably in the Corinthian columns of Ancient Greece. The popularity of acanthus leaves continued into the Roman, then Byzantine periods.

The design appears in Medieval art work as a popular feature in illuminated manuscripts. Appearing in the late 14th century, acanthus leaves showed up in illustrations, calligraphy, and were featured in decorative borders.

The use of acanthus leaves as a decorative element continued during the Renaissance and on into more modern periods. The Victorians used the plant for inspiration in the creation of ornate ironwork, ceramics, and architectural details.

The famous decorative artist William Morris often added images of the plant to his designs, including the beautiful wallpaper shown on this page. His decorative arts firm, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, & Co., offered variations of acanthus foliage on textiles and wallpaper. Associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement, Morris inclined toward natural forms and used organic dyes.

Acanthus Leaves on Wallpaper (circa 1875)

Acanthus Leaves on Wallpaper (circa 1875)

Where to Plant Bear's Breeches

  • In cooler areas with cold winters, bear's breeches appreciates some full sun. A bit of afternoon shade will protect it from the harsh light late in the day.
  • In more moderate climates with hot summers, the plant thrives in partial to full shade. In U.S. zones 6–7, an east-facing location is best if you want the plant to get some direct sunlight.
  • Bear's breeches are drought tolerant, but do appreciate occasional watering during the hottest part of the year. They will not thrive in low, wet locations.
  • Plant in moist, loose soil in an area with good drainage.

It may take the plant a few years to establish itself and to flower. Acanthus mollis forms clumps and spreads by dropping seeds. It also sends up new plants by spreading its tuberous root system. South of U.S. zone 7, the leaves are evergreen.

Bear's Breeches as an Invasive Plant

Acanthus mollis can be invasive in U.S. zone 9, in California and Oregon, and in New Zealand. Mild winters encourage an invasive habit. In areas with cold winters, the plant will from clumps but will probably not become a nuisance.

One of the problems with this plant is that when you dig around the roots or remove the plant, new shoots will erupt from roots that remain in the soil. If you wish to totally eradicate bear's breeches, dig down deep and remove the soil from a wide area around the plant.

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If you wish to plant Bear's breeches and are concerned that it may spread too much, place a metal barrier in the soil around the plant's base. You can also plant it in a container.

Of course, if you live on the U.S. West Coast, or in other areas where Acanthus mollis is invasive, avoid the plant at all costs.

Other Types of Acanthus

There are many types of acanthus grown in gardens around the world. Acanthus mollis is the most common.

  • Balkan acanthus or Acanthus hungaricus flower spikes reach 2 feet tall. It is best grown in U.S. Zones 6–9.
  • Spiny bear's breeches or Acanthus spinosus has flower spikes that grow 4 feet tall. The hardiest of the lot, spiny bear's breeches present thorny leaves. The leaves are the most deeply lobed of all the Acanthus plant (see photograph below). White flowers appear inside a purple hood.
Acanthus Spinosus

Acanthus Spinosus

For Floral Arrangements

Bear's breeches create vertical interest in a flower arrangement. Cut spikes with fully open flowers early in the morning. Place in hot water, then plunge into cold water. Arrange flower spikes at the back of a floral design.

Dried spikes can be used in dry arrangements as well. Cut flowers in the morning. Hang upside down in a dry, well ventilated area. Suspend by tying string to the stem and hanging away from bright light.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Dolores Monet

Comments

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on February 01, 2018:

Hi RT - many plants are invasive only in certain areas. Bears breeches cause problems in milder climates with warm winters. Invasive plants are nothing to mess with as they over run neighborhoods and crowd out native species. Thanks for reading!

RTalloni on January 30, 2018:

Enjoyed reading this well-done post on bears breeches. In spite of it being invasive it would be a great plant to use as a natural fencing. Grown in containers to be used for that purpose I could enjoy their beauty most of the year, but the seeding could be a problem. Oh for acres and acres to grow invasive species together and watch them vie for their spaces! :- )

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 07, 2017:

Hi Dolores,

I found your article about the Acanthus Mollis to be very interesting particularly how the leaves have been used through the centuries in art. The fact of it being invasive in some climates is a shame. Thanks for the warning.

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