Green scene

One summer flower that’s not easy to grow here

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Usually in these columns, I stick to one central theme, be it a plant, a bird or whatever interests me at the moment.

As I strolled past a favorite of mine, a Strobilanthes plant — seen all too infrequently in this area — I thought I would concentrate on it this week. However, upon learning that Strobilanthes is from the acanthaceae family, which includes another favorite of mine, I decided the combination was too good to miss.

The second plant, commonly known as bear’s breeches or an Acanthus, basically shouts its family name.

There are many choice foliage plants for summer, but coleus — which now has a tremendous range of fancy patterns —is among the most common.

I spotted my first Strobilanthes in a public garden, and knew I had to try it. The leaves are ovaloid and the surface is a dark green with a silvery iridescent pink/purple markings radiating from the central vein. The leaf has a purple underside.

It is known colloquially as the “Persian shield,” and the only reason I can see for that is that the leaves are exotic looking enough to invoke ancient Persia, although the plant originated in Myanmar. While ovals tend to remind me of Zulu shields, ancient Persian shields apparently could either be ovaloid or round.

Strobilanthes is a genus of 350 species with some species being cultivated for their hooded flowers, which grow in shades of blue, pink, white and purple. However, the species most likely to be seen locally in cultivation is Strobilanthes dyeriana and its attraction is clearly its leaves. The name Strobilanthes derives from the Greek strobilus, meaning cone, and anthos, meaning flower, since that is the shape the flower takes in some of the Strobilanthes species.

The second part of the Latin name, in this case dyeriana, is known as the epithet. Here, the name was bestowed in honor of Sir William Turner Thiselton-Dyer, who was the director of the Royal Botanic Garden in Kew, England from 1885 to 1905.

With an eye to the economic development of British colonies, he introduced rubber plantations to Sri Lanka and Malaysia, as well as cacao plantations to Sri Lanka.

While Strobilanthes is winter hardy in zones 10 through 11 (Riverdale is Zone 7a), and can grow to 4 feet in warmer climates, here it is essentially an annual and will be shorter. It can be overwintered as a houseplant and propagated through cuttings in the spring, but as the original plant develops a woodier stem, the foliage quality may start to decline.

Late summer cuttings are suggested for overwintering. The hardest part about growing them here is locating them at a local nursery.

I first saw today’s second plant, the Acanthus, on a spring trip to Israel. It seemed to be growing everywhere we walked in Jerusalem. There was this stalk covered with curved flowers in lavender and white, resembling large snapdragon flowers, and there was no one to ask who could shed light on it.

Eventually, I spotted one locally and discovered its identity, either an Acanthus mollis or Acanthus spinosa, and I discovered the plant is desirable for its large, architectural foliage as well as its flowered stalk.

The name “Acanthus” comes also from the Greek acanthi meaning spiny, referring to the thorny edges on some species.

The name “bear’s breeches” may be a corruption of the medieval nomenclature which actually translates to “cultivated spiny bear bract” (resembling a bear claw), and bract became corrupted into breech(es).

It grows as evergreen clumps through Zone 7 and spreads through underground runners. Propagation is by root cuttings. Apparently in warmer climates, it can be hard to control, which makes it hard to explain why I lost the only one I’ve ever tried growing.

It seems to prefer partial shade and a moist soil, which sometimes can be hard to achieve in a hot August.

Designs derived from Acanthus leaves have been used as ornamental features in architecture, most notably in the Corinthian stone columns of the Greeks. They were also used by the Romans in Byzantine and Medieval styles, as well as the present.

We were houseguests on a recent trip to Richmond, Virginia, and I wanted to bring a gift to our hosts. Knowing that they had a house, I decided that a plant for their garden would be most appreciated.

Having spent the night in Williamsburg, we ended up at Forest Lane Botanicals. I asked the owner, Alan Wubbels, what was new and exciting. He instantly pointed out a variegated Acanthus mollis cultivar Tasmanian Angel.

If we had been going home shortly, I would have bought a second one for my garden.

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