Perennials for Shade

Architectural Acanthus

One of my favorite plants for shade is Acanthus, (pronounced ah-KAN-thus) commonly called “Bear’s Breeches” for unknown reasons.  There are two species available in nurseries, Acanthus mollis and Acanthus spinosus. See the accompanying photograph for a side-by-side comparison.

Both species have bold evergreen leaves that draw attention in the garden. When you see one in bloom, you cannot help but say, “Golly!” The leaves of mollis are large and shiny; the leaves of spinosus bristle with sharp spines. (Bet you saw that one coming, huh?).  Leaf clumps may reach three feet tall. Bloom stems jump up to five feet or more. In the Mary Snoddy garden, the height of the bloom stem is a direct reflection of any irrigation I have thrown their way. The more water, the taller the stem. They do prefer a drier soil, however, so don’t get carried away with the watering. Ensure good drainage during winter to prevent root rot.

Acanthus’s distinctive leaves served as the pattern for carvings on classical Greek architecture. Blooms appear in early to mid summer on sturdy stems, white petals held by dusky purple bracts.

Acanthus are cold-hardy zone 7-10. They are evergreen in my zone 7b garden. Plants may spread by seed or by underground roots. I have seen reports of invasiveness on the internet, but have not experienced any such behavior in the ten-plus years I have enjoyed them. Deer, rabbits and voles avoid them.

Acanthus spinosus  on left;  Acanthus mollis  on right.

Acanthus spinosus on left; Acanthus mollis on right.

Prickly  Acanthus spinosus

Prickly Acanthus spinosus

Mary Snoddy and  Acanthus mollis  ‘Rue Ledan’

Mary Snoddy and Acanthus mollis ‘Rue Ledan’

Chinese Foxgloves

Spring means “garden tour time” here in South Carolina. I enjoy garden tours and attend as many as possible because (a) I enjoy seeing the way other people have conquered garden challenges and (b) I discover exciting new plants.

Several years ago, I encountered a plant I had never seen before. The homeowner/tour host told me it was a Chinese Foxglove, Rehemannia eleta. The beautiful tubular blooms made a pink cloud in the dry shade under a tree. The voice that lives in my head said, “Must.Have.That.Plant!”

I scoured all local nurseries, trying to find this beauty for sale. When that failed, I turned to the internet. I did not find plants, but I did find seeds for sale, at a company located in Ontario, Canada. Fast-forward a couple of weeks, and I held the precious envelope, ready to start my own pink cloud. When I opened the seed envelope, there was a smaller, waxy envelope inside. And inside this envelope there was – nothing. I telephoned the seed seller, which was a bit frustrating. I do not speak French; they did not speak Southern. When I was transferred to someone who understood my problem, I was told that there was, in fact, seeds inside the inner envelope. They were the size of dust particles. I hung up and found my trusty jeweler’s loupe, one of the handiest items ever created. 

Yes, there were minute seeds, visible with 10x magnification. I had never started anything so small, so I took special precautions. I used a very fine seed-starting mix, soaked it completely, and packed it lightly into plastic 4-cell packs. I tore a paper coffee filter into tiny scraps. then used tweezers dip each filter piece into water. I touched a corner of the damp filter to  the seeds, one at a time.  The seeds adhered nicely to the damp filter. I laid each filter piece and its attached seed on top of the seed starting mix, one per cell.  In just a few weeks, I had tiny plants and large self-congratulation. (This technique works well for any tiny seeds.)

Since then, the Chinese Foxgloves in the Mary Snoddy garden have reseeded into large, handsome clumps. (I guess Mother Nature did not need tweezers and a coffee filter.) They have a travel plan of their own design, and crop up in other places in the same shady bed. I assume that their seeds are wind-distributed.

Chinese Foxgloves thrive in the same soil, moisture and light exposure as Hostas. Despite the common name, they are not true Foxgloves (Digitalis). The tubular blooms have a bit of flare to the petals. They are cold-hardy In Zones 7-11. If deadheaded, they will bloom for months. I choose to skip the removal of old blooms, and still enjoy four to six weeks of flowering.