The name ‘acanthus’ was taken by Linnaeus from the Greek ἄκανθος, used by Aristotle among others to mean a prickly Mediterranean plant (today A. mollis), imitated in the Corinthian columns of Greek architecture; the related ἄκανθα means ‘thistle’. The family of Acanthaceae was first assembled by Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, and refined in 1847 by Christian Gottfried Daniel Nees von Esenbeck (1776–1858), the German botanist who described almost as many species as Linnaeus himself, and who after a distinguished academic career, lost his posts and honours after the 1848–9 revolutions, and died almost penniless.
Acanthaceae include 250 genera and about 2,500 species worldwide, some in tropical and some in temperate climates, but the genus Acanthus has about thirty species, found mostly in the Mediterranean area and parts of Asia. The ones we are most familiar with in the UK are (unsurprisingly) the Mediterranean species, particularly A. mollis and A. spinosus.
They may have been introduced to Britain as early as the Roman occupation. Gerard in his Herball (1597) classes them as thistles, and recognises two species, which he calls A. sativus, ‘Garden beares breech’ and ‘Branke ursine’, and A. sylvestris, or ‘wild beares breech’. The garden one is described thus:
Gerard notes that the wild one is named Chameleonta monspeliensium by the Provençal botanist Pierre Pena (1535–1605), who ‘reporteth that he found it growing amongst the gravellie and moist places neere to the wall: this Thistle is in stalke, flowers, colour of leaves and seede like the first kind, but shorter and lower, having large leaves, dented or jagged with manie cuts and incisions, not onely in some fewe parts of the leaves, as some other Thistles, but very thicklie dented or cloven, and having many sharpe and harde prickles about the sides of the divisions, and cuts, not very easie to be handled or touched without danger to the hand and fingers’.
Going back a bit further, Gerard also quotes Dioscorides (the Greek physician who wrote a Materia Media about 60 CE) saying that ‘garden Branke ursine growth in moist and stonie places’, and adds ‘in my garden it doth growe very plentifully’. It is hardy in England, ‘yet now and then it perisheth in winter in both the Germanies, if it be too cold’. He also adds an antiquarian note: ‘the ingravers of old time were woont to carve the leaves of this Branke Ursine in pillers, and other works, and also upon the eares of pots, as among others Virgill testifieth in the third Eclog of his Buckolics.
Et nobis idem Alcimedon duo pocula fecit, / Et molli circum est ansas amplexus acantho.‘
[I also have two cups, made by the same Alcimedon, and he has clasped their handles with twining acanthus … Eclogue III, ll. 44 ff.]
Finally, Gerard lists the ‘vertues’ of the plant. (As always, don’t try this at home.)
I agree with him about it growing plentifully: I moved some plants last autumn, but obviously failed to get all the root out, and new leaves are currently sprouting on a weekly basis in the wrong place – must try harder. (I have also found that they are ridiculously easy to grow from seed so long as you wait for it to get really ripe before extracting it from the flower stalk.)
But the part played by the acanthus, and especially by its leaves, in all the decorative arts over millennia is as noteworthy as its garden and medicinal virtues. A stylised acanthus leaf becomes a regular feature of painted Greek pottery and architecture from the fifth century CE, and the Corinthian column (apparently despite its name) was developed in Athens about the same time. It continues to appear in Byzantine and medieval art (and extraordinarily seems to have reached India by the fourth century CE, but comes back into its own in the Renaissance, and never really stops, from Scamozzi to Wedgwood to William Morris to today. Here is a chronological overview of the decorative uses of this most attractive (to us and to bees) plant.