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Cathedral spires: Acanthus in the garden


I just was asked to write an article on the "10 essential plants" for Colorado gardens--thankless task that! I am kicking myself that I did not include Acanthus. Surely, few of the thousands of plants I have grown over the years have given me more pleasure than these.  I just took the picture above a few weeks ago in the Rock Alpine Garden where this species proliferates. In fact, one of the previous caretakers did everything they could to get rid of this delightful plant....

I took the picture above a few years ago also in the Rock Alpine Garden: but you can find acanthus blooming throughout Denver Botanic Gardens in many gardens right now. The flowers last for months (in fact, cut and dried they make splendid everlastings).

Although the species I showed in my first two pix is the probably the toughest and most adaptable in Colorado, I find that even Acanthus spinosus is happy in a protected spot, and can be  even more imposing. We don't seem to have any superlative specimens any more (keep putting new gardens where we have these established: our bad!), which reminds me: leave your acanthus where you put them. They move, but resentfully. These are plants that improve with time and are best allowed lots of room and an imposing place in the garden. I grew Acanthus spinosissimus and even a special form of Acanthus mollis--the classic Bear's Breeches--at my old home before I sold it. {Sniff.} I miss them!

Ah yes! Bear's Breeches: the classic common name for this...surely we can do better! I don't know many grizzlies that wear pants, but I have seen many a church with a spire! I propose the much more appropriate and inspiring cognomen (if I don't say so myself...): Cathedral spires!

This little mite would be a humble roadside chapel spire by comparison. Acanthus dioscurides grows in the eastern Mediterranean, and thrives in a shady spot and also a hot, baking sunny spot in our Rock Alpine Garden. It is a flashier pink in bloom, and another spectacular member of this diverse and underappreciated genus.

Perhaps I am too easily swayed by the sonorities of Organ fugues, and the dusty beams of light in Gothic cathedrals? But I think most of us can use a bit more majesty, or perhaps just spirituality in our lives and in our gardens. There is nothing like a clump or two of Acanthus to bring some of the magic of a Johan Sebastian Bach cantata to your suburban refuge!  Hush--if you listen carefully, you can hear the angel wings fluttering softly in the background!


Irene shepard

I agree, a beautiful plant. And don't forget this plant formed the basis of the motifs on the capitals of Corinthian columns in Greece.
Panayoti Kelaidis

Acanthus hirsutus is likely the one the Ancient Greeks used for their model: somewhere in my slide library I have a picture of a robust Acanthus growing ALONGSIDE a fallen capital from a Corinthian column...too cool! Alas! this species is nor reliably hardy here, although I managed to grow one strain well at my old house... I suspect you recall these growing in Harare? They are rather common weeds in Constantia and other suburbs of Capetown as well as in California.
Matt Pizzuti

I've found that you can grow zone 6 and 7 plants in Colorado if they are against the south side of a building, particularly if they're coming up from between flagstones or concrete. It only takes a few degrees! Some warmth escapes the building all winter, radiates slowly from the brick/stone during cold nights, plus the sun warms it daily to re-charge it. I've seen gladiolus come back without being dug, now 4 years in a row, against a Southern exposure, and a datura comes back from the roots between flagstones and a tool shed (but never blooms... it's bigger every year so maybe soon, but at least I know it's not actually re-seeding). This plant seems particularly well-suited for the strategy because it's got aggressive, deep roots and seems to come back from the same eye.

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