Acanthus is the hardiest Genus in its family, coming mainly from the eastern Mediterranean coast across into Turkey, growing on dry rocky hills. Ideally, they prefer to grow in a well-drained site in a sunny position. Additionally, they will grow in light shade, but flower much better in the sun. They are easy, long lived architectural plants with deep coloured, glossy foliage of great merit. As a bonus, The bees just love the tall spikes set with hooded flowers stacked up in even columns. Each flower consists of a purple or pink hood above a contrasting white lip. The foliage, especially on the smaller species dies off completely with the frosts.
Roman and Greek homes commonly used Acanthus as decoration in , both as garlands and as motifs on friezes and on clothing. Virgil reports that Helen of Troy had Acanthus decoration on her clothing.
The inspiration for the acanthus Leaf decoration used on the top of Corinthian columns is the lovely architectural leaves of this Genus. It is a stylised form and was probably based around the leaves of either A. mollis or A. spinosus.
This is the legend that tells of how the Romans first chose Acanthus leaves. The Greek architect, Callimachos, was visiting the tomb of a young woman who died on the eve of her wedding day. A previous visitor had left a basket covered by a tile standing on an Acanthus plant. Callimachos noticed that the tile had bent back a leaf in a particularly decorative shape. He then took this inspiration and used it on the columns of a Temple he was working on in Corinth. Vitruvius tells that it was the family’s maid who took the basket, containing the woman’s favourite goblets and that the tile was to shed the rain. The basket stood until the new growth twined around the basket in a most pleasing way.
In the 17th century the name for Acanthus was Brank-ursine, or Bear’s claw – possibly in reference to the shape of the flowers.
The origin of the name Bear’s Breeches is a fancied resemblance of the softly hairy leaves and stalks (A. hirsutus ?) to the rump and legs of a hairy bear. I think this one takes some imagination !