How to Grow Bear's Breeches (Acanthus)

Updated on March 25, 2020
OldRoses profile image

Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.


Once in a while I come across a new to me flower that is so spectacular it literally stops me in my tracks. That’s what happened the first time that I saw Bear’s Breeches. The leaves were incredible. The flowers were spectacular. I had to have it for my own garden.

What is Bear's Breeches?

Bear’s breeches (Acanthus mollis) is a herbaceous perennial that is native to the Mediterranean. It is often referred to simply as “acanthus”. The plants are pictured in both the Greek and Roman art and sculpture. In fact, I unknowingly became familiar with acanthus leaves when I learned the different architectural styles of classical pillars. Depictions of acanthus leaves are found on the capitals of Corinthian columns.

Corinthian columns are characterized by capitals that are decorated with acanthus leaves.
Corinthian columns are characterized by capitals that are decorated with acanthus leaves. | Source

Bear’s breeches have been gracing our gardens since ancient times. The first written mention of them growing in Italian gardens was in 1548. William Robinson, a British garden writer, mentions the plants in his famous book, The Wild Garden, in 1870. Peter Henderson, who owned a nursery in NJ, mentions them in his book, Handbook of Plants in 1890.

Acanthus are hardy in zones 7 – 10, but they grow very well in my NJ zone 6 garden. The secret to getting them through the colder winters of zones 5 and 6, is to cover the crowns with a thick layer of mulch in the fall. Be sure to remove the mulch in the spring when the plants start growing again.

The plants are large, up to 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide. The leaves grow in a clump, up to 2 feet long. They are evergreen in warmer climates. In colder climates, it’s best to not clear away the dead foliage in the fall. Leave it to protect the crown over the winter.

The flowers grow on a spiny stalk and look a lot like snapdragons. There can be up to 120 flowers on each flower stalk. The flowers appear to be purple and white, but the purple is actually a bract that covers the white flowers. The flowers are exclusively pollinated by bumble bees and large bees that are strong enough to force their way inside to the nectar. Bloomtime is late spring to early summer for approximately 3 to 4 weeks.

The flowers are followed by a pod that contains 2 – 4 seeds. Acanthus depends on the wind to disperse its seeds.

The purple and white flowers are actually white flowers covered by purple bracts.
The purple and white flowers are actually white flowers covered by purple bracts. | Source

How to Grow Bear's Breeches

Bear’s breeches grow in either full sun or partial shade. They need a minimum of 4 hours of sunlight each day. If your plants aren’t blooming, they are probably not getting enough sun.

Plant them in rich, well-drained soil. Once established, they are drought tolerant. They grow best, though, with 1 inch of water every week. The plants don’t need to be fertilized. A side dressing of compost in the spring is sufficient.

Space your plants 3 – 4 feet apart. Acanthus unfortunately is invasive. It spreads by both seed and underground runners. A good way to keep them under control is to plant them in a pot and sink the pot into the ground. You can also surround your plants with a barrier sunk into the soil around them. Deadhead the flowers to prevent them from producing seed.

How to Divide Bear's Breeches

Bear’s breeches have long taproots so it is difficult to dig them up and divide them. A better way to propagate them is to stimulate the plants to grow plantlets that can be transplanted elsewhere. In the fall, take a shovel and thrust it into the base of the plants. Leave the plants alone all winter. In the spring, you will see little plants sprouting from the wounds you made with your shovel the previous fall. Use a sharp knife to cut the plantlets from the parent and replant them where you would like new plants to grow.

Be aware that it will be a few years for these small plants to get big enough to bloom.

How to Grow Bear's Breeches From Root Cuttings

Acanthus is usually propagated by root cuttings. You can take your cuttings either in the fall or the early spring. Carefully dig up your plants and using pruners or a sharp knife, cut no more then 1/3 of the roots that are the width of a pencil. Replant your plants.

Clean the roots, cutting off any lateral roots and the thin tip. Then cut the roots into 2 -4 inch lengths. Make a horizontal cut through the top and an angled cut at the bottom.

Plant the root pieces, flat end up and 1/8 inch deep in containers. Keep the soil moist. You can carefully transplant your cuttings into your garden when they are 2 inches tall, after the last frost when the soil has warmed.

These new plants will not bloom immediately. They need a few years to grow large enough to support flowers.

Acanthus depends on bees for pollination, but they must be big enough to force their way into the flowers.
Acanthus depends on bees for pollination, but they must be big enough to force their way into the flowers. | Source

How to Grow Bear's Breeches From Seed

Bear’s breeches have long taproots so they do not transplant well. It is best to start your seeds outdoors in your garden rather than indoors.

You can sow your seeds directly into your garden in the spring, after your last frost and when the soil has warmed to 45⁰F. Soak your seeds overnight to soften the hard outer seed coat which hastens germination. The following day, plant your seeds in your garden ½ inches deep and 6 inches apart. Keep the soil moist. Germination should begin in 3 weeks and last about a month. Thin the seedlings to 3 feet apart. Mulch your seedlings to keep the soil moist and prevent weeds from growing and competing with them for water and nutrients.

It will be several years before the plants are large enough to start blooming, so be patient.

© 2020 Caren White


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)