Experts tackle readers’ garden questions.
Q: Can you tell me the name of this plant? I think it is a philodendron but cannot find this exact type.
Michelle Jones, Sacramento
Garden writer Debbie Arrington: That’s no philodendron; it’s an acanthus – and a wonderful perennial for California gardens.
Specifically, it’s Acanthus mollis, better known as bear’s breeches. Its other nicknames are sea dock, bear’s foot and oyster plant. Grown from underground rhizomes, this hardy perennial is native to the Mediterranean and can be found growing wild from Italy to Western Turkey.
It’s believed to have been common in the gardens of Greece and Rome; its statuesque flower spikes are believed to have inspired the design for the tops of Corinthian columns in ancient architecture. But this popular plant didn’t make it to the Americas until the late 1800s.
British garden writer William Robinson is credited with introducing it to American gardeners as part of his classic 1870 book, “The Wild Garden.” American nurserymen of that era also promoted the use of this pretty perennial, and acanthus quickly became a favorite in Victorian-era cottage gardens.
In spring and early summer, bear’s breeches boast beautiful glossy green foliage and striking 3-foot (or taller) spires of white flowers clasped by prickly purple bracts. (Their resemblance to bear claws prompted the nickname.) Those flowers are a favorite of bees and beneficial insects and look spectacular at the back of a perennial bed.
By September, acanthus tends to die back to the ground. In late winter (at least in temperate California), it re-sprouts new foliage and its cycle starts again. Clumps can be extremely long lived, often decades if left undisturbed. (We’ve had one that’s been growing in the same spot for almost 70 years.)
More things to like about acanthus: Deer and rabbits tend to avoid this plant. In addition, it’s hardy down to zero degrees. That makes it a good choice for foothill gardens, too.
Acanthus prefers afternoon shade, especially in Sacramento where the leaves can become sunburned in summer. It’s very easy care and needs little attention; deep irrigation once a week is sufficient. To thrive, acanthus needs good drainage and refers loamy soil, but will tolerate less-than-ideal conditions.
The Bee’s Debbie Arrington is a consulting rosarian and lifelong gardener. Call her at 916-321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.
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