“JUST SIT BACK and watch it grow!” was a favorite line proclaimed by radio talk-show personality Ralph Snodsmith after he dispensed gardening advice to a caller. The onetime horticultural guru of New York’s WOR-AM, Ralph knew that most plants want to grow if we gardeners just give them the right conditions and care. But sometimes, a plant will take its own sweet time deciding if it is going to live or make a one-way journey to the compost pile instead. This has been my experience with a species called Acanthus spinosus, a.k.a. bear’s breech.
Hailing from the Mediterranean, Acanthus spinosus has much to recommend it as a garden plant. Growing in a large clump, the attractive, dark green, glossy foliage is deeply cut, thistle-like, and only modestly barbed. It is resistant to insect pests and rabbits. Spikes of snapdragon-like flowers in shades of pale and dusky pink are distinctive and rise to three feet or more above the leaves. The ancient Greek architect Callimachus was a fan of this plant, decorating the top of his Corinthian columns with Acanthus leaves, and it’s still a common design element in contemporary art and design. Often commonly called “bear’s breeches,” the plant has nothing to do with the slacks Smoky wears or we wish Yogi would put on, but derives from the bear claw-like flower bracts. Other common names are oyster plant, sea holly and bear’s foot. Such a historic plant with a dignified demeanor certainly should have a loftier moniker.
Having seen Acanthus species thriving in warm southern climes, I was surprised to see it living large in Ithaca, NY, as well. At the time, I had assumed that we were too far north to grow it successfully, but if they could grow it in Ithaca, well by golly, it should grow in Castleton-on-Hudson, too. So I procured a plant, set it into my nice loamy soil in a backyard spot, and sat back to watch it grow, letting Ralph be my guide.
That was 20 years ago. For at least 15 ensuing summers, the Acanthus would produce just a modest leaf or two, never more. It didn’t look sick, but refused to thrive. I kept the weeds and neighboring perennials at bay, and watered it occasionally, but the status quo was maintained. For perhaps a decade I hardly gave it a thought, but I let it be.
In 2016, the Acanthus woke up, becoming fuller and downright lush. I’m not sure what sparked the change: the mediocre Batman movie, Brexit, presidential politics? Perhaps that difficult year inspired it to adopt a “now or never” attitude in terms of its own survival. In 2017, it produced its first flower spike, and this year it sports a half-dozen more, finally making something to see. I can finally say, “I grow Acanthus spinosus” and not be ashamed of my results.
I’m glad I let this late-bloomer do its thing, get it’s grove on and finally rise up singing. The Acanthus has taught me patience.
To contact David Chinery, horticulture educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County, email