Sunday, July 26, 2015


This isn't one of those, "What does that word mean?" kind of posts. It's a "What is that plant named?" kind of post. Normally, I am not all that intent on learning the names of plants. Lazy, I know. But a few weeks ago now, I was walking downtown on a street that I don't walk on that often, but have certainly walked on before. This time, for some reason, I was struck by a plant in someone's front yard. It had something to do with the low white fence in front and the plant being against the house, because this immediately took me back to our childhood house in Buena Park, where I lived in my early grade school years. I wouldn't have been able to tell you that these particular flowers grew in our front yard before that, but I knew it exactly when I saw them in this particular configuration. What are those crazy plants? I thought, as I wandered on.

Later that night when I got home I tried to use an online plant identifier or two to figure it out, but realized that I still hadn't remembered enough to put in a decently helpful description. I only knew that these kind of white spearlike flowers shot up from leaves at the base and I thought of them as being kind of 'prehistoric'. This is not the sort of description that a plant identification tool finds helpful.

Then a week or so ago, I saw some more of these plants elsewhere in town and was able to study them a little more closely. I saw that the leaves were giant green flat leaves at the base, and that the flowers were not so much spears as sort of long fronds, and that the flowers were more like small white bells under a green or dark hood.

So today, I remembered my quest again, plugged some more words into some other plant identifier and there it was. Acanthus. Acanthus Mollis to be more precise:

Photo by KENPEI
So yes, it looked like my search was at an end. But here's a funny thing. It turns out that this little plant which I remember from suburban L.A.has a deep and far-flung past. Although my mother probably called the plant by its rightful name, the real reason acanthus sounds familiar is because of its noble lineage--as the motif on ancient Greek  and Roman pillars.

Composite capital with acanthus leaves-- Ad Meskens
And it is embroiled in controversy. Some think that its fellow acanthus, acanthus spinosus, she of the spined leaves, is the main model for this ornamentation:

Acanthus spinosus--Magnus Manske

But the Austrian art historian Alois Riegl argues that it was not acanthus at all that started the trend. It was based on the image of a palmette, and only became more like an acanthus later. The mind reels.

Acanthus, it seems, has a trick of getting in everywhere. It soon climbed down off the pillars and found its way into other ornamentation. Here it is, mixed in with the palmette on Edward IV's jacket:

In the ornamentation of Belles Heures of Jean of France, Duke of Berry:

And even a British post box (leaves on top) made between 1866 and 1879:

photo, Andrew Dunn

And thank you, Wikipedia, for doing most of the hunting and gathering work here for me. More examples, including William Morris wallpaper, can be found at the bottom of that page.


  1. What a fun quest! I love how your search played out, taking us to various objects and art oieces we may have seen before. By the way, I'm surprised that Gwenyth Paltrow didn't name one if her children Acanthus. Wouldn't that be so Gwen?

  2. Thanks, Julie C. Graham. Do you have any memory of that Buena Park house, by the way?

  3. Much prefer acanthus topped columns to Excel columns and rows.

  4. Very cool! Stylized acanthus leaves were especially common as ornament of capitals in the sixth century, as at Hagia Sophia. I saw so many such capitals that it was a bit of a jar when I learned that acanthus was a real plant.;_ylt=AwrB8o8vNblVJF0AaY8unIlQ;_ylu=X3oDMTIyYTMxYmNkBHNlYwNzcgRzbGsDaW1nBG9pZAM0MjFjMjg5NmFkODY3YjhiMmQ5NjMxYTE0MGM1ZGQ4YQRncG9zAzIEaXQDYmluZw--?.origin=&

  5. Thanks, Peter. Yes, there is some gorgeous stuff out there based on this ornamental idea. Here's one that I was too lazy to add to the post from the Doge's Palace in Venice:,_31-Jul-2008.jpg

    1. It's because of those stylized acanthus leaves that I can date capital to Justinian's time from all the way across a museum gallery.

  6. That's quite impressive, Peter. Maybe you could wager a drink or two on that feat.

  7. Oh, I don't know. Such capitals are pretty common, I think.

  8. They may be, but I don't think most people have studied them by period like that.

  9. I have such a vague memory of the place. Mostly of the inside of the house. Though I remember Grammy's backyard and the birdbath quite well from this time period!

  10. I have such a vague memory of the place. Mostly of the inside of the house. Though I remember Grammy's backyard and the birdbath quite well from this time period!

  11. Well, we have a lot more pictures of that birdbath than anything in Buena Park I think.