Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Acanthus Express My Love for Italy Enough

This plant is one of the pillars of art in Italy - quite literally. I remember first learning about Corinthian columns in elementary school and thinking they were obviously the prettiest because they incorporated plant leaves into the head and foot of the column. Fast forward to me studying abroad in Italy, discovering that the plant featured in Corinthian columns and many other architectural designs around the country is called Acanthus, or Bear's breeches, and I'm still in love with it.

Acanthus is a member of the Acanthaceae family, and is native to the Mediterranean region as well as other warm temperate and tropical regions. Its Latin name is Acanthus mollis, from the Greek word akantha meaning thorn, and the Latin word mollis meaning soft or smooth - referring to the prickly sepals and soft leaves of the plant respectively. Historically, Acanthus has been a symbol of long life, and even immortality, making it a popular motif at funerals. Like a starving student set loose to
find lunch in a foreign city minutes before siesta, this plant is none too picky. It can be seen growing in either sun or shade, in roadside ditches, rocky ground, and in the midst of thick brush. It is an invasive species because it can be propagated by tubers or seeds, and was one of the earliest cultivated plants.

When you take a closer look at this plant, it is easy to see how it became the muse for Greco-Roman architecture all over the Mediterranean. The dark green, glossy leaves are deeply pinnately lobed, distinctive and easily reproduced in statuary, carvings, and columns alike. Its tall racemes of white flowers with their deep violet bracts are enchanting. Luckily for me, this plant also happens to be drought tolerant and easily grown in areas such as College Station, Texas for its adaptability. This strong-willed little guy will tolerate any soil type and pH, provided it is well-drained.  I can't wait to get home and try my hand at growing this historical masterpiece!


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