“Somewhat difficult to eradicate once established. . .”ᵅ “Any roots left in the ground will form new plants.”ᵇ “Don’t come crying to me!”ᶜ
Acanthus mollis, Bear’s Breeches, is one of the most interesting and architectural plants readily available to gardeners today. For those of us who don’t or can’t go out into the wilds of other countries to harvest seeds of exotic plants, or who don’t have a budget that allows us to spend hundreds of dollars on just one or two rare, cool plants, and for those of us who are really tired of hostas, this plant fills a big need (and space). Its large, lobed, very shiny (and sometimes spiky) leaves form a widely substantial, symmetrical clump that remains upright and attractive throughout the gardening year. It will ride through drought with very little wilt, and is easy to cut back if it shades out another plant. In bloom, it is almost as exotic as most orchids, and just as beautiful. And plants three or more years old will bloom in deep shade. Slugs and snails don’t eat enough of it to be noticeable, cats won’t nest in it, and beagles can’t dig it up. What more could you want from a plant?
And if you want mine, you can have it.
About seven years ago, I planted one – just one – small Bear’s Breeches. The plant was a healthy one-gallon cub calling out to naive gardeners walking past its table. Considering myself to be experienced and knowledgeable in the Ways of the Plant World, I was sure that if I planted it in deep shade, and in competition with roots of a venerable heritage apple tree with a wide canopy, I would be safe. After all, the more nutrients, sun, and water this plant receives, the more it can spread. So, I chose a spot under the apple tree to plant the little Bear that would allow it to be seen from the kitchen nook window. It performed as planned and remained well-behaved for its first few years. However, it decided to become a parent in late spring of its fourth year. As I had become extraordinarily busy that year with a new job and a heavy workload in the public garden I maintain, my home garden was neglected until mid-fall. And when I finally had time to tend the home plot, I was astounded to see two very healthy, happy Acanthus youngsters growing close to the blooming parent. The parent plant looked so proud I half expected to see ‘new-baby’ balloons and little cigars distributed throughout the garden.
Anyway, if you are familiar with the extensive root system of an apple tree that is almost 100 years old, you will know that digging out an unwelcome plant with clumpy roots is not easy. It took an entire afternoon to carefully dig out and cut back the extensively dispersed roots of the parent, and the tenacious roots of its offspring, without harming the apple tree. I was genuinely surprised to see how readily this plant had spread throughout its partially restricted area. So much for my initial plan.
I was successful in removing the babies, and have been able to keep the parent plant under control, since that time. It has not produced more seedlings since then (yet!) and each summer produces two to three flower stalks. I still appreciate this plant, especially when in bloom, but I don’t trust it. If you decide to introduce Bear’s breeches into your garden, remember to be vigilant. Remove those little cubs as soon as they appear.
And remember – never trust a bear.
ᵅ Missouri Botanical Garden
ᵇ Fine Gardening Magazine
ᶜ A good friend.