Beware of bear’s breeches. I was enchanted by the idea of a plant that would relish the conditions I offer of sand, drought and poor sustenance. Perhaps I should have been more stingy with home-made compost, seasoned with fish, blood and bone fertiliser. My generosity was rewarded by one year’s long season of magnificent spires of bloom in white and steel grey. That was it. Thereafter, the rich, classical leaves turned sickly Kermit frog green, flavoured with unhealthy dirty brown blotches. I gave it twelve months to redeem itself and when it failed, dug it up. Where there was one huge clump of Acanthus mollis, now there are a dozen sturdy sprouts. “You’ll never get rid of that” said Botanical Barbara. I asked her if she would like some. “No thank you, definitely not”.
Primula auricula “Purple Pip”, ten year old plant
The rather more desirable relative is Acanthus spinosus. The name give you a clue, it does what it says on the tin. The plant stays in a discrete tuft, refusing to proliferate. It goes without saying that the unusual species, the most prolific blossom and the best scented varieties do not spread wildly, or seed themselves about with unfettered abandon. The flowers are similar to A. mollis, with the added excitement of needle like spines embedded amongst the petals. I discovered this for myself, pushing aside a heavy bud to get to a nettle beneath. The stem bounced back and I was assaulted from behind with a blow to the buttock which felt like a mailed fist. My shriek of indignant agony echoed the length of the street, rattling chimney pots and causing twitching curtains as far as I could see through watering eyes.
Sorbaria sorbifolia (false spirea), highly invasive
It is worth noting that if someone offers you a clump of a good doer from their garden, they have found it a pest of plague-like proportions. The Sorbaria (false spirea) is suckering outrageously; If I had known about such a nasty habit, I would have kept it in a pot. Cerinthe major (honeywort) has sent seedlings into the lawn and everywhere else. Borage is a heartless brute that knows no bounds. A friend, and here I use the term loosely, gave me some of the pink Persicaria bistorta “Superba” (bistort). This hardy perennial has infested the front border, swamping the sexy Kniphofia “Ice Queen” (red hot poker) and making the Lilium longiflorum regret the day that it was born. Occasionally, a piece of the beast is requested by one who I hold dear and I hand it over with a caution as to its rowdy disposition. I do hope that they listen.
Euphorbia mellifera (honey spurge), seeds itself freely
We’re getting ready for summer, weeding frantically. Attila is ordered into the big back bed with remorseless regularity, although he fears that we’ll never beat the wildings. I crawl around, removing hairy bittercress, henbit and plantain on hands and knees. I like to think of their removal with roots intact much like pulling the heads off with their spines attached. I’m only sorry that they don’t squeeze out a blood curdling scream. My husband threatens dandelions and dock from an upright position. When he complains about the repetitive nature of the job or the backache entailed, I clip him lightly around the head with a spade and tell him that the beatings will continue until morale improves.