You Gotta Know When to Fold ‘Em

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

One of the best things about working at a botanical garden is being able to try out different plants in different situations. Success is not only measured in plants that thrive but also with the experience and knowledge that comes with plants that absolutely will not grow in the conditions we have thrust them into.

One group of plants that we are officially giving up on growing are the bold and beautiful Acanthus species. Otherwise known as Bear’s breeches the two most common species, A. spinosus and A. mollis look very similar to each other and both are native to the arid regions of the Mediterranean from Portugal east to Turkey. One of the earliest cultivated plants the foliage of Acanthus was heavily used as ornament in Greek and Roman art and architecture, often used in the ornate Corinthian columns of antiquity.  The long lasting snapdragon like flowers often soar three feet over the foliage making a striking statement in a perennial border.

As dedicated plant nerds we have been planting both species of Acanthus in several different locations throughout the KBGA for the past four years and as of this writing the only thriving group of plants we have are in pots in the greenhouse. While I have seen individual plants thrive in gardens around East Tennessee, it is far more common to see yellowish, stunted plants that are on the cusp of giving up the ghost.

Acanthus mollis.

Acanthus mollis.

So we have come to the conclusion that we are not meant to grow this interesting group of plants. The combination of heavy clay soil, nearly five feet of annual precipitation, and humid summers have conspired to make this a plant to admire in the magazines. However,  it is the duty of a gardener to “try just one more time”, so when the right conditions come up we may just have to plant a few more and see what happens.

Acanthus spinous

Acanthus spinosus happily growing in southern California.

Closeup of Acanthus flower

Closefup of Acanthus flower

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