Tree Talk: Growing a piece of ancient history

Tree Talk: Growing a piece of ancient history

Tree Talk: Growing a piece of ancient history

Late last month and this, the soaring floral spikes of Acanthus mollis emerged above their clumps of large dark green, deeply lobed leaves, easily stretching up 5 feet or more. They are a spectacle that has come to herald our true, but characteristically tardy, Pacific Northwest summer. Blossom filled scepters, they can rule over the garden well into September when the petals drop and seeds form.

Yet, stunning as they are, it’s not the flower stalks that make this plant an indelible part of Western civilization. The big glossy leaves are what have captured the imaginations and artistic eyes of history.

Fast backward. You are living in Greece, circa 430 BC. The sculptor Callimachus decides that the classic Doric and Ionic columns need a capital update.

So, he embellishes the tops of these supporting pillars with the beautiful shapes of leaves he sees growing wild on the south facing slopes to the Mediterranean. The Corinthian column was born. From that point on, the acanthus leaf became a staple in the decorative arts, an embellishment to architecture, jewelry, ceramics and even the cast iron ornaments of 19th century America. The Roman poet Virgil wrote of Helen of Troy wearing a dress embellished with acanthus leaves. The foliage has adorned neo-classic columns and swooped up candle sticks and furniture legs in grand European rooms from the Medicis to Louis XIV and Victoria. You’ve no doubt seen these leaves on pricy silk scarves and assorted fabrics in dress shops and haberdasheries. As one artist friend put it, “The shape just soothes. It comforts the soul, as it has for millennia.”

Visit a nursery in search of Acanthus mollis and it’s likely you won’t find what you see in the photograph or what the ancient Greeks and Romans found so compelling. You’ll likely be offered a different plant. Most commonly sold is A. spinosus. This plant is smaller, by about a third to a half, than A. mollis. Its leaves are deeply and sharply cut, resembling giant thistle foliage. The flower stalks are not as tall. Why the nursery industry seems to prefer this over the more primitive acanthus is a mystery to me. To my eye it lacks the stature and nobility of its cousin. You might also find a variegated-leafed acanthus. The foliage is cream and green, quite beautiful actually, albeit the bloom crop, from what I have observed, is less than robust, if not nonexistent. No, I want the acanthus of Socrates and Virgil, spreading out its big leaves, luxuriating in the dim light of my shady summer garden, a visual complement to the softly plopping fountain.

Dispense with frustration. Never mind the paucity of availability of Acanthus mollis. This plant is easy to propagate from root divisions. Scout out a clump belonging to a friend (or if you must, ring the door bell of a stranger). Come late autumn, using a sharp shovel or spade, slice down into the side of a clump, about 6 inches in. With hardly a wiggle of the shovel, you’ll pry up a slice of fleshy branched roots, each segment about as big around as a thumb. Put this in the ground. Mark it with a stake. Late spring, next year, you‘ll see the first leaves curling out of the soil. Before summer’s end you’ll have a bouquet of leaves and, from that point on, you’ll never be without acanthus. In short order you’ll have a clump large enough to share with friends. I have it spotted all over my garden. I’ve even seen it grown in large containers, a wonderful focal point for an entry or at the end of a walkway. Elevated in a pot, the clumps of leaves are all the more dramatic.

Happy in shade or sunlight, acanthus thrives in dry or moist earth. If exposed to baking sun and thirst, its leaves flop to the ground and turn brown. Pull off the distressed leaves, water the plant well and new growth will appear before summer is over. In the wilds of the Mediterranean, this is its natural cycle, up in the spring, shriveled in the heat of late summer, only its flower stalks standing. Then fall rains begin, and up comes the foliage to stay on through winter into the next dry season. As the blossoms on the flower stalks fade, you can cut them. They make great material for dried arrangements. Leave them on the plant for seeds to develop, and you can collect the seed. It germinates easily and the plant comes true from seed.

Acanthus is what I call a “filler plant.” Wherever I need to cover ground, most often in a darkly shady spot, in goes the acanthus. It’s a wonderful partner for our native sword ferns. Do remember that the more sunlight, the larger the crop of flowers.

I love this plant, and should you be passing my garden on some August or September evening and you hear the melodic plunking of a lyre, smile knowingly but do keep going. No doubt I’m stretched out in a chaise lounge, likely popping grapes and sipping good red wine, as I rest in my toga, admiring my Acanthus mollis and dreaming of antiquity.