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Patience rewarded

July 26, 2004|by Dorry Baird Norris

"Gardening is an exercise in optimism. Sometimes, it is a triumph of hope over experience."

- Marina Schinz




Gardeners are always pushing the envelope - planting in the wrong soil, with the wrong exposure, in the wrong climate. We dig and hope.

That's the way it has been with acanthus and me. It's said to be marginally hardy through zone 6, but its survival seems to be problematical.

This year has been different. When things in the southeast corner of the garden started to push through the soil - there it was. The shiny, dark green, deeply lobed leaves with a thick rib in the middle were coming up through the bedstraw. And then, two weeks ago, wonder of wonders, two stalks with purple and white flowers (they looked a bit like snap dragons on steroids) were reaching straight up toward the sky - a beautiful and exciting sight.

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Acanthus and I first became acquainted when I was studying ancient history in the sixth grade. We learned about the three types of architecture characteristic of early Greek and Roman times - Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. Because Corinthian buildings were decorated with acanthus leaves, they were the only ones I seemed able to remember. I loved the way the deep-cut acanthus leaves curled around the tops of Corinthium columns - so graceful and sinuous.

Later, when I became interested in needlepoint, I found the designs of the Arts and Crafts movement's guru, William Morris for rugs, bell pulls, pillows and seat cushions equally enchanting. The fabrics he designed featured large and quite wild representations of acanthus leaves.

There was a reason that acanthus was one of the most widely used decorative foliage motifs throughout history: the scrolling leaves, showing both their light and dark sides, create fascinating designs.

But real acanthus and I were never properly introduced until 10 years ago when, while attending a national herb meeting, I discovered an Acanthus mollis at the plant sale. Straightaway it found a place in my Tennessee garden. Within the month, it was dead.

The following year, another acanthus met the same fate. After the move to Hagerstown. I discovered an acanthus at Ashcombe's in Mechanicsburg, Pa. Soon, acanthus No. 3 was in place.

For three years, it barely survived. But, suddenly, all is well. My Acanthus mollis finally decided it might like my garden after all.

My previous disappointment might have been alleviated if I had read John Parkinson (1629). Calling the acanthus "Garden Beares Breech," he notes, "After this plant has stood long in one place it sendeth up one or more great flower stalk." Bear's breech is still the folk name of the plant. Acanthus comes from the Greek akanthos, a "spine." The term is used to describe many thistle-like plants.

The acanthus is a Mediterranean plant. There are two species commonly available - Acanthus mollis, with broad, blunt tips to its leaves, and Acanthus spinosus, with narrower leaves and pointed lobes ending in spines. The ancient Greeks seemed to have preferred A. spinosus while Romans preferred A. mollis.

In Greek mythology, Acanthus, the son of Autonous and Hippoamia, was torn to pieces by his father's horses - a tale that seems completely unrelated to the plant. In floral-speak, acanthus symbolizes, according to one book, "the Fine Arts and Artifice." Another declares it an emblem of "Genius." In Christian art, it symbolizes heaven.

Acanthus will survive in ordinary garden soil, but, as with all plants of Mediterranean origin, the soil must be well-drained. The plant will succeed in full sun or partial shade. In particularly hot areas, some shade is recommended.

This year, the plant in my garden was considerably shaded by the poppy plants that grew rampantly around it. All the plant books suggest the plant grows 3-4 feet tall. Ours now barely reaches 2 feet. Although slugs are said to be a problem for these plants, I have noticed no damage from them.

The flowers are white, with lilac, pink or purple tinges and appear on stiff erect spikes well above the foliage.

Even with the long wait for results, acanthus is an interesting addition to the garden. Keep in mind H.L.V. Fletcher's comment: "Who has learned to garden who did not at the same time learn patience?"

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