Gardeners are always looking for something new and exotic and, yet, every now and then, they return to old standbys that, while easy to grow and fairly common, are so unique that they deserve a treasured garden spot after all.
Take bear’s breeches, for instance. The name itself is curious, and it is mostly a mystery as to why bear’s breeches are called bear’s breeches. Some have suggested that the soft and hairy to prickly leaves have the texture of a bear’s bottom, since breeches refer to the backside or hind end of the body. I wonder how many people have actually made contact with a bear’s bottom to verify this etymological theory! The plant’s Latin name, Acanthus mollis, is also a conundrum since acanthus means thorny and mollis means soft.
In any case, bear’s breeches (Acanthus mollis) need no introduction from me to prove their bona fides. Aesthetically, their leaves are without compare, having been immortalized on Corinthian columns as the signature foliage of ancient Greece. Leaves are 2 feet long, dark sea green and deeply cut. In the entire natural world, I doubt if there is a deeper green than that exhibited in the leaves of bear’s breeches.
It is a green that, after a rain and in the muted light of an overcast winter’s day, has the deep glow of a finely polished, green-black gem.
Bear’s breeches are indigenous to North Africa and Mediterranean Europe. This habitat implies drought tolerance, which bear’s breeches possess to a considerable degree. In fact, it would be fair to say that few plants for the shade garden are more drought tolerant than bear’s breeches. This is hinted at in its hairy, prickly leaves, which are almost always an indication of a minimal need for water.
Occasionally you will drive by an abandoned Valley house where the lawn is dead and watering of any kind has obviously not been done for many, many months. Yet against the shady, north-facing facade of this empty house, bear’s breeches will be growing in lush profusion.
Being an herbaceous perennial, its leaves fade and die back periodically, but its strong, bulblike rhizomes will send up new leaves soon enough. Indeed, the key to keeping bear’s breeches looking their best is to cut leaves to the ground as soon as they begin to lose their deep green luster.
No shade-loving plant gives more for less than bear’s breeches, with a maximum watering regimen of a single weekly soaking, and no fertilization requirement.
If bear’s breeches provide a lush and formal centerpiece to the shade garden, begonias may be planted there for color. A caveat is in order, though, since begonias are not as shade loving as bear’s breeches and will turn moldy unless they have good ambient light. Plant them toward the front of the shady area.
‘Dragon Wing’ begonias (Begonia x hybrida ‘Dragon Wing’), with red or pink flowers, are a hybrid between an ‘Angel Wing’ cane begonia and a tuberous begonia, although its characteristics are those of an evergreen cane begonia. ‘Dragon Wing’ is the tallest of the commonly available begonias, the other two being bedding or wax begonias (Begonia semperflorens) and true tuberous begonias (Begonia x tuberhybrida), which go dormant in winter.
‘Dragon Wing’ is the strongest begonia with ‘Angel Wing’ parentage. ‘Angel Wing’ begonias are noted for their giant, often serrated, leaves that appear in pairs along the stem, suggesting the dorsal appendages of celestial seraphs. The problem with most ‘Angel Wing’ begonias is their profound need for sun protection and their inability to survive cold. Because of their sensitivity to the elements, they are usually grown as indoor plants, even in places with relatively mild winters such as the Valley.
‘Dragon Wing,’ on the other hand, will grow right through a typical Valley winter and may even survive a hard freeze when planted in the shade of taller shrubs or small trees. ‘Dragon Wing’ does demand room to roam, however, as a single specimen will reach a height of nearly 3 feet with equal girth.
Although recommended for partial shade or filtered sun, ‘Dragon Wing’ can take more sun if planted now before harsh summer heat sets in. By the time summer arrives, it will have become acclimated to its somewhat sunny garden spot.
‘Dragon Wing’ begonias are recommended as a ground cover under giant birds of paradise (Strelitzia nicolai), ornamental banana trees (Musa and Ensete species) and cannas, those summer-flowering rhizomatous plants with iris like flowers in red, pink, yellow, orange and white. ‘Dragon Wing’ is also a fitting subject for terra-cotta pots and hanging baskets. It dutifully spills out of balcony containers and over block walls when given half a chance to do so.
Bedding or wax begonias, the most widely planted type, have either bronze or green foliage accompanied by tomato red, pink or white flowers.
Tuberous begonias are an excellent alternative to the monotony of impatiens in the shady to partially sunny garden bed. The miniature rose-shaped flowers of tuberous begonias, in red, pink, salmon, yellow and white, are a universally acknowledged delight. The yellow tuberous begonia is especially prized because warm-weather, partial-shade selections seldom have yellow flowers.
As days shorten in the fall, lift begonia tubers and store them in a dry and cool place, such as a garage or garden shed, until spring arrives and they can be replanted.
Begonias are heavy feeders and will sulk in the garden, not nearly reaching their potential, unless they are fertilized every two weeks when grown in containers and once a month when planted in the ground. Ideally, you will want to use a 20-20-20 or 15-3-15 liquid formula and may also want to mix slow-release fertilizer into the soil prior to planting.
Properly fertilized bedding begonias may reach 2 feet in height; when not regularly fertilized, they are unlikely to grow more than 6 or 8 inches tall.
Begonias also benefit from being mulched, which will keep soil moisture constant. Fluctuations in soil moisture level will lead to fungus or desiccation of begonias, depending on whether too much or too little water is applied.
Tip of the week
Anyone who does much flower arranging and is looking for an easy-to-grow foliage plant to fill out bouquets should grow butcher’s broom (Ruscus hypoglossum). This is a highly drought-tolerant shade plant that is virtually impossible to kill and will not need water more than twice a month. It has a clumping evergreen growth habit and will tolerate as much shade as any other perennial. Propagation is achieved by division of the clumps.