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Acanthus mollis Smooth bear's breech[es] {Past and present medicinal uses}

Updated on August 9, 2015

Acanthus mollis



Acanthus mollis commonly referred to as Smooth Bear's Breech{es} and Oyster plant belongs to the order of plants known as the Lamiales, and, within that order, placed in the family Acanthaceae. They have been allocated the genus name of Acanthus from the Greek akantha meaning a spine or thorn and given the specific name of mollis, Latin, meaning soft.

It is a native to the the Mediterranean region from Portugal,north west to Africa and east to Croatia and is one of the earliest cultivated species.{ see acanthus and the garden below}.

Here in the UK it does not grow in the wild but is a favoured cultivar of the cottage garden. Here we look at the species its past and present medicinal uses, along with notes and observations from past herbalists and other eminent writers. As always we commence with a description of the species under review.

Illustration of Acanthus mollis {Left of image}

The New Botanic Garden Courtesy of the BHL
The New Botanic Garden Courtesy of the BHL

Description of Acanthus mollis

The root of this species is long,thick and fleshy,diffuse,fibrous and of a dark colour externally and nearly white within. The stem that arises from the root is cylindrical,upright,simple,and firm.They attain the height of two to three feet. {60-90 cm}. They are clothed with flowers from the middle to the summit of the stem in the flowering period.

The leaves are nearly all radical,amplexicaule,very long,smooth,soft,and divided with many angular cuts.

The flowers consist of a calyx {sepals etc} of four unequal leaflets,somewhat labiate and persistent. The corolla {petals etc} has only one lip which is monopetalous,ample and plane,clothed with hairs at the orifice and divided into three lobes at the extremity. There are four stamens with villous anthers.

The fruit {seed capsule containing the seeds} is a capsule of two cells opening elastically with two valves each containing a single roundish seed. {see photograph below}

It is a perennial herbacious plant and flowers from July to September.

Acanthus mollis seed pods


General information

The generic name of Acanthus {spine or thorn} does not apply to this species which is smooth and 'unarmed'. Nether-the-less it was regarded as the Acanthus par excellence. The plant was celebrated by Virgil and other poets. It has been renowned for centuries on account of the beauty of it leaves,which furnished the ancient sculptors and architects with one of their chief ornaments.

The Greeks and the Romans carved them upon their vases and their massive goblets,and wove them into their costly vestments. The discovery of their ornamental character is contained in the following legend. " A young lady of Corinth, having died just a few days before her marriage was to have been celebrated, her devoted nurse, put into a basket different articles of which the girl was fond, and placing it near the tomb, upon a plant of acanthus,and covered it with a large tile.

The following spring the Acanthus grew up,and its large leaves encompassed the basket,but meeting with the projecting tile, they were curved at the extremity bent down. An architect named Callimachus passing by ,was struck with the novelty and beauty of the figure,and resolved to apply it to the decoration of the Corinthian capitol"

Milton enumerating this among the plants which decked the primeval bowers of Eden.-

" On either side

Acanthus,and each odorous bushy shrub

Fenced up the verdant wall"

Foliage of Acanthus


Past medicinal uses and historical observations.

Even by the 1800's the reputation of this plant as a medicine had much declined. It was prior to that period it was reckoned to be one of the five emollient plants and prescribed in fomentations and lavements to ease the symptoms of inflammatory or nervous irritation. It acted as a slight astringent in the spitting of blood,diarrhoea and dysentry.

The leaves boiled and mashed into a poultice,was recommended as an application to deep seated abscesses,for the purpose of hastening supporation. The roots were said to abound with mucilage and was sometimes substituted for those of Comfrey and Marsh mallow.

Acanthus mollis was traditionally used as a treatment for dislocated joints and for burns..A paste made from the plant was applied to dislocated joints which helped to treat the affected muscles and ligaments,simultaneously relaxing and tightening them to encourage the joints back into their proper place. The crushed leaves were used in the form of a poultice to alleviate the pain of burns and scalds.

The leaves boiled and the liquid used as a clyster was claimed to be beneficial in cleansing the bowels and to strengthen the rectum. the decoction was said to be good for the 'bloody flux' One herbalist wrote " It is excellent in diseases of the urinary organs,given in the form of a powder,that is from the leaves", the dose administered was from 12-40 grains three or four times a day.

The old Apothecary

Interior of the Apothecary's shop
Interior of the Apothecary's shop | Source

Modern day uses of Acanthus mollis

Herbalists today confirm that the roots are astringent,detergent,emollient and vulnerary. The plant contains appreciable quantities of mucilage and tannin.The plants emollient properties are considered useful in treating irritated mucous membranes within the urinary and digestive tracts.

However, it seems there are better and alternate herbs for such uses and its historical claims seem to be just that-confined to medicinal history. However,gardeners and growers still benefit from the Acanthus as depicted below.

Acanthus mollis in the garden


Acanthus and the garden

Acanthus is a genus of perennials some of which are semi-evergreen, grown for their large,deeply cut leaves and spikes of flowers. They are fully hardy and prefer full sun,warm conditions and well drained soil,but will tolerate some shade.

The crowns need to be protected through the first winter after planting.The long thong-like roots make the palnts difficult to eradicate if wrongly placed. They may propagated from seed or division in early autumn or spring or by root cuttings in winter. Seeds may require a little heat.

The Acanthus is generally seen in old fashioned gardens and in those where there is room to display its fine foliage. Acanthus mollis and Acanthus spinosa were introduced to the UK in 1629,and were the two most commonly grown in England.Several other species were also introduced among them A.montanus from west Africa in 1865,A.longifolus from Dalmatia 1869,and A.caroli-alexandri from Greece in 1887. However, even at these times the two original species were still best known.

Acanthus longifolus {long leaves} produces flowering stems 2-3 feet high.The leaves are radical 2-3 feet long,those of the stem reduced to bracts,oval,spiny and reddish. The flowers are purple rose coloured and appear in June.

A spinosa {spiny} produces flowering stems 3-4 feet high.The leaves are deeply cut in to tooth like lobes,each ending in a short spine. The flowers are purplish,the calyx spiny.They flower from June until September.Many other species are available to the modern gardener.

Acanthus is easily grown where it can have a sunny position, a deep soil and elbow room. { In the wild they grow in open woodland along with Hart's tongue ferns.} They should be planted in such a position that their bold foliage can be shown at the best advantage without confusion from other plants. The flowers can be cut for indoor arrangements,or dried,although the colour tends to fade. Tip--over watering can often prove fatal.Clumps can be divided every 3-5 years in the spring or autumn..

The hardiness in North America is given as follows --

USDA Zone 7b;to 14.9 degrees C {5 degrees F}

USDA Zone 8a; to 12.2 degrees C { 10 F }

USDA Zone 8b;-to 9.4 C {15 F }

USDA Zone 9a ; to 6.6 degrees C { 20 F}

Acanthus montanus



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    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb they sure do make a nice and bold statement. Thank you for visiting-Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      This is a truly unusual and beautiful plant. I would welcome this in my garden.

    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Devika , thank you once again for your encouraging and generous comments. it is always a welcome sight when I see you here. Best wishes to you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Voted up, useful and interesting. Always a surprise from you. The beautiful plant has a great touch to it. Your work is informative and most education.

    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      hello Eddy, glad to have introduced you to another species of nature. Hope all is well in your little corner of Wales. Best wishes to you.


      hello my friend, you are very welcome. Thank you for taking the time to read and leaving your appreciated comments. Best wishes to you.


      Hello, thank you for your kind and welcomed comments.Best wishes to you.


      hello, They are impressive garden plants if you have the room to show them off away from other plants which may encroach on them. Thank you too for leaving your appreciated comments. best wishes to you.

    • frogyfish profile image

      frogyfish 3 years ago from Central United States of America

      This sounds like a beautiful garden plant! Your first photo reminded me somewhat of a snapdragon. The Acanthus foliage itself is beautifully green but those tall spikes must be lovely.

    • JYOTI KOTHARI profile image

      Jyoti Kothari 3 years ago from Jaipur

      Rated up and useful.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Thank you, another great and informative hub. I think we are just too dry for these guys here in the desert. But the are in our botanical gardens.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

      The Smooth Bears breeches is a new one for me but thanks to you I know it well now. Another interesting and well informed hub. Wishing you a wonderful day .