Foliage Friday: Acanthus Mollis

Today’s Foliage Friday is this large stately flowering bush that I saw around Filoli, but also see in my neighborhood.

Earlier in the year, the ones planted in my neighborhood didn’t have the flowering stalks; they just large glossy rhubarb-like leaves. I knew it wasn’t rhubarb of course, but I wondered if they were somehow related.

This is Acanthus mollis. Common names for it include Bear’s Breeches, Wild Rhubarb, and Wofford Rhubarb. It’s completely unrelated to rhubarb, though. Rhubarb is in the Polygonaceae (knotweed) family, whereas Acanthus mollis is in the Acanthaceae family. Acanthus mollis is also not considered edible, although the leaves have some supposed medicinal qualities.

Acanthus mollis is native to the Mediterranean, so it makes sense that it seems to do really well in the Bay Area, but they’re surprisingly hardy – down to zone 6. How or why did it get the name “Bear’s Breeches”? The only reputable source I found that addressed the issue was a 1996 article from an academic journal, Garden History, titled “The Tortuous Tale of ‘Bear’s Breech’, the Puzzling Bookname for ‘Acanthus mollis’.” The conclusion of this article was that the name is a corruption of the medieval name for the plant branca ursina, which was a reference to the plants bracts, which someone thought look like a bear’s claw?? I don’t see it.

Regardless, it’s a very pretty evergreen with regal flowers, and it looked beautiful at Filoli.

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