How to Grow Bear's Breeches

Bear's Britches - Acanthus spinosus
© Marie Iannotti

Overview and Description

Bear’s breeches are large perennial plants with glossy green leaves and tall spikes of flowers. They are always touted as architectural plants and their leaves are often used as a motif in moldings, reliefs, and even jewelry. In fact, many gardeners grow them for their foliage alone, although the flowers are quite nice themselves.

Acanthus means bract and the botanical name comes from the thorny look of the purple bracts.

Although there are about 30 species of acanthus, only a couple are commonly grown as garden plants. While they are imposing and beautiful, they can be erratic, blooming well in one year and disappointing in another.

  • Leaves: Wide rosettes of arching, shiny, dark green leaves that are deeply lobed..
  • Flowers: White flowers grow on tall (3 ft.) flower stalks and are hooded by purple bracts.

Botanical Name

Acanthus mollis

Common Names

Bear's Breeches, Oyster Plant

Hardiness Zones

Bear’s breeches are dependably hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 6 - 10. They can often survive winter down to Zone 5, but it can be a bit of a gamble during harsh winters. A thick layer of mulch will improve their chances.

Light Exposure

Plants will do best in full sun to partial shade. They need more protection in hot climtes, but wherever you grow them, they need at least a few hours of sun to bloom well.

Mature Size

These are both tall and wide plants.

Mature clumps can reach anywhere from 3 - 6 ft. tall with a comparable width.

Bloom Period

Expect your Bear’s breeches to start blooming in late spring to mid-summer and to continue blooming for 3 - 4 weeks. Bloom time depends on both your zone and the whims of the weather.

Growing Tips for Bear's Breeches

Bear’s breeches like a rich soil with plenty of compost or other organic matter.

Once established, they are more accommodating about poor soil, but they absolutely need good drainage, especially in winter. Sitting in cold, wet soil can kill them. They are also not particular about soil pH, but prefer something in the neutral range (6.5 - 7.5).

Starting from Seed: If you can find the seed, the best time to start Bear’s breeches from seed is in spring. You can start seed indoors or out, but expect to wait several years for them to bloom.

Division: Bear’s breeches have long tap roots and do not like to be moved. If you want to divide your plants, the best way to do it is to thrust a shovel through the base of the plant’s roots, in fall. The following spring, you should see several new “baby” plants that can easily be transplanted.

Cuttings: You can also multiply your plants by taking root cuttings in either the spring or fall.

Caring for Bear’s Breeches

Water: Once established, Bear’s breeches are very drought resistant, but they do best with regular water. An inch a week should do it.

Fertilizer Bear’s breeches are not heavy feeders. Start with a rich soil and side dress annually. You can use a balanced fertilizer in spring or mid-summer, if the plants look like they need it.

Maintenance: Protect your plants during their first couple of winters with a thick layer of mulch. In Zones 6 and lower, continue this practice for the life of your plants.

Bear’s breeches can be aggressive growers, spreading and squeezing out neighboring plants. To keep them under control, many gardeners place a sunken border around the plants or plant them in bottomless containers, sunk into the ground.

In hot climates, the plants can be cut back after flowering. This will encourage fresh new foliage. Gardeners with cold winters should leave the plants standing and allow the leaves to protect the crown. Wait until you see new growth, in the spring, to cut back any damaged or declining leaves.

Pests and Problems

Insects don’t generally bother Bear’s breeches, but those gorgeous leaves can be susceptible to a handful of diseases, with powdery mildew being the usual culprit.

Good air circulation and a dose of homemade fungicide will help with that.

  • Insects: Aphids may become a problem in the thick leaves and slugs and snails will hide out and feed, if the soil is damp.
  • Diseases: Powdery mildew, other fungal leaf spotting diseases, and bacterial leaf spot.

Design Tips

These are wide plants and will need at least 3 - 4 ft. of garden real estate each. Because of it’s bold leaves, Bear’s breeches pairs well with airy plants, like Crocosmia, Gaura, and ornamental grasses. Frankly they are so imposing, you might not notice any plants near them and can be used quite effectively on their own.

Suggested Varieties of Bear's Breeches

  • Acanthus balcanicus var. hungaricus Hungarian Bear's Breech - The most widely adaptable species. It blooms later and is less susceptible to late frosts.
  • Acanthus mollis Common Bear’s Breeches - This is the most popular species, but it can also be the most temperamental about blooming, with buds being damaged by late spring frosts.
  • Acanthus. spinosus Spiny Bear’s-breeches - More adaptable than A. mollis and more thistle-like.