Sandy’s Garden ... Bear’s Breech

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Greece having been in the news rather a lot recently, it occurred to me that I had no idea what the national flower of Greece is.

Scotland’s national flower is the thistle; the national flower of Wales is the daffodil; England claims the Tudor rose; and the flower of Ireland is the shamrock. So what is the national flower of Greece?

The first source I consulted gave two possibilities – the laurel branch and the violet. I wouldn’t consider a laurel branch as being a flower, just as I don’t consider the leek to be the Welsh national flower, although I am perfectly happy to describe the leek as a symbol of Wales. The second authority I turned to offered three nominees – the laurel branch, the violet and cyclamen, specifically the Greek cyclamen (cyclamen graecum). My third search came up with this answer: “Greece has no set national flower or bird. While the most famous varieties of flora in the Greek nation are the violet, laurel, and the bear’s breech, none have been adopted as the national flower.” Ah-ha, just as Greece lacks a realistic financial policy, the country also lacks a national flower. But what is bear’s breech?

Bear’s breech turns out to be one of two common names applied to Acanthus mollis. The other common name, believe it or not, is bear’s breeches, so there’s a distinct lack of imagination there. Still, it’s a rather strange name and I wondered where it originated. The website offers this explanation: “Nobody quite knows why it’s called bear’s breeches, although it could be derived from berber rather than bear and breach meaning hole, chasm or large gap – in which case the name could refer to the deeply cut leaves that are evergreen through most winters.” And if that sounds a bit far-fetched, it’s the best answer I can find.

Well, using its proper botanical name, Acanthus mollis … usually sold in garden centres under its proper name, acanthus … is, to quote the Royal Horticultural Society, “a vigorous plant with large, glossy dark green leaves, pinnately lobed and, in late summer, tall racemes of white flowers with dusky purple bracts.” It is native to south-west Europe and is a deciduous perennial plant which will grow to a maximum height of some one-and-a-half metres (say, five feet in old money) in between three and five years, achieving a similar maximum spread. It grows best in full sun or partial shade in well-drained soil and isn’t too fussy about whether it has a north-facing, east-facing, south-facing or west-facing aspect, although, given that it comes originally from the Mediterranean region, I think a south-facing aspect with some protection from the north and north-east winter winds would be advisable. Kenneth Cox and Raoul Curtis-Machen, in their splendid book Garden Plants for Scotland write, “It prefers a warm, sunny, well-drained spot and in cold/inland gardens should be protected with a mulch in the first winter. It will grow, but not flower well in shade in Scotland.” Amen to that.

The gardener who grows acacia successfully will be rewarded with a bold specimen plant which features attractive, dark green leaves and carries dramatic mauve and white flower spikes during the summer. Although it is drought-resistant, as might be expected of a plant from the Mediterranean, a prolonged spell of dry weather … as if, in central Scotland! … can result in the appearance of powdery mildew. Otherwise it is commendably disease and pest free. It needs very little maintenance apart from cutting down old flower stems. And yes, a plant that expects little management skill might make a good national flower for Greece!