Churchyard Nature Note with Andrew Tompsett

August 2018

A classical plant in our churchyard


If you should walk along the path from the North gate towards Merritt’s grave, you can hardly miss seeing a handsome plant with vigorous dark green, lobed leaves and, in most years, tall, sturdy, flower spikes composed of many mauve and white, somewhat prickly, florets.

The Greek name originates from these thorny sepals, Acanthus mollis commonly called Bear’s breeches. Other common names for this plant are Sea dock and Oyster plant. The origins of these names seem to be lost today.

Introduced from the Mediterranean area to gardens here in Britain in the mid-16th century, it was first recorded in the wild as a garden escape in 1820.

Formerly much appreciated by early garden designers it is not so common today, but may be seen in larger gardens on account of its statuesque habit and its classical acanthus leaf pattern which has been copied in the decoration of ancient architecture.

The finely-sculpted, shapely leaves of Acanthus have an interesting connection with ancient buildings over many centuries. The motif of acanthus leaves was used by the Greek sculptor Callimachus in the 5th century to ornament the top of Corinthian columns in the Greek – Romano period and this feature of classical design is still commonly seen today: also Virgil described the acanthus pattern as decoration on a dress worn by Helen of Troy.

This plant was introduced to Illogan churchyard amongst others when we were keen to increase plant diversity here. Of the dozen or so different perennial plants we put in near the back of the Carriage House only this one, the Bear’s breeches, has survived the severe competition from rank grass and brambles that have over-run the area. Pollination is by larger insects such as bumble bees which have the strength to push their way into the flowers. I do not think we need to fear a take-over by Acanthus. It is slow to spread if left undisturbed, and although it has a tuberous root and produces a few wind-dispersed seeds, it is unlikely to increase very much, like the hated Jap weed its main means of spread comes from carelessly discarded roots.

In this country Acanthus plants are mainly present in large gardens or historic estates where they have space to grow. In other places it is occasionally seen as an escape, some would say ‘a weed’ where it has probably been discarded from smaller gardens. The plant is actually listed as poisonous and was used medicinally in the distant past. This need not be a potential danger since many native and introduced plants are toxic, for example yew, laburnum, daffodil bulbs and foxglove and we know we should leave them alone.

For some years there has been a spectacular display of Acanthus plants and their striking flowering stems in the plot of rough ground between the small cafe and along the stream running into Portreath beach but I note they are currently facing stiff competition from other vegetation!