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What are Acanthus?

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  • Written By: Victoria Blackburn
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 01 November 2016
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In botany, Acanthus are a group of flowering plants that are found in tropical and warm temperate areas. There are about 30 different species of plant that make up this family. The highest number of species can be found growing in and around the Mediterranean region. It is also commonly referred to as bear’s breeches.

Acanthus is a Latin word, which comes from the Greek akanthos. Akanthos means thorn plant and refers to the spiny leaves of some of the different types of species of this plant family. Most of the species are perennial herbs or shrubs, which means they will live for longer than two years or that they are winter hardy in the regions where they are found. There are also some examples of vines and trees that are acanthus plants.

These types of plants have both distinct leaves and flower displays. The leaves are arranged in simple pairs that grow along the twig, with most of the different species having spines on the leaves. The leaves and foliage of the plants remain close to the ground with the flower spikes rising out of them. Depending on the species, the leaves can be variegated in color, or have white and green regions.

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Small individual flowers are grouped together in clusters on spikes that grow out of the top of the plant. In most cases, the flowers are either white or purple in color. The size of each individual plant can vary from 1.3 to 6.6 ft (0.4 to 2 m) in height, based on the height of the actual flower spike. Species of acanthus are cultivated by gardeners as ornamental plants both for their distinct leaf patterns as well as their predominant flower displays. Acanthus balcanicus, A. spinosus and A. mollis are three species that are commonly used as landscaping plants.

The term acanthus is also used in architecture to describe a design that is patterned after the leaf formations of these plants. The design has been found dating back to Ancient Greece and is cut into both stone and wood. It is said that the leaf pattern found at the top of Corinthian columns is modeled after either the A. mollis or A. spinosus species of these plants. There has been some controversy surrounding this theory of about the acanthus ornamentation and the acanthus plant. Alois Riegal, an Austrian art historian in the late 1800s, argued that the acanthus ornament actually began as a palmette and was later transformed to resemble the A. spinosus plant.

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