Capital embellishment

I can still see them, bound in scarlet leatherette with gold embossed lettering, the three volumes of the Reader’s Digest Encyclopaedic Dictionary, which my father bought when I was about ten years’ old. They were kept in pride of place in the book case in the sitting room. Unlike the flimsy paged dictionaries in the school library, these felt rather luxurious and many entries were accompanied by small black and white line drawings which were perfect for tracing, and I illustrated several school projects with squares of greaseproof paper showing smudgy images of cocoa pods or Elizabethan costumes. But the pages I seemed to return to most often were those showing architectural features. Here I learnt to distinguish a Norman arch from a Gothic arch, a buttress from a gargoyle. And here I first learnt the three basic classical orders of architecture from a drawing of the capitals of antique columns. First the austere Doric style, then the moustachioed Ionic and finally the flamboyant Corinthian.

Outings to country houses and a few archaeological sights, notably the Forum in Rome and Jerash in the north of Jordan, provided examples of the types of capital. But many years passed before I connected the elaborate ‘Acanthus Scroll’ of the Corinthian capital with a plant that grows in British gardens: Acanthus mollis, commonly known as bear’s breeches.

Before spreading a mulch of shredded horse manure on a client’s flower beds last week, I made sure I wasn’t suffocating the crowns of any precious herbaceous perennials emerging from their winter dormancy. Gleaming in some rare sunshine, I found the glossy dark green leaves of A. mollis. There have been few frosts this winter in this area, and this was in a very sheltered town garden, so the leaves have already grown quite large. Late last year I cut back the spent leaves and distinctive flower spires measuring up to one metre in length on which are stacked curved pinkish bracts (resembling the bears’ breeches which give the plant its common name) protecting white two-lipped flowers. This is no modest plant content to blend into the background, but an extrovert of a specimen strong in both design and structure.

It’s easy to see why the ancients chose the architectural form of its leaves to decorate their buildings. But the plant wasn’t just used as architectural inspiration. In Claire Ryley’s ‘Roman Gardens and their Plants’ (ISBN 0-904973-16-6) I read that both A. mollis and A. spinosus were used by the Romans to line paths in formal gardens. The leaves of A. spinosus are more deeply lobed than those of A. mollis and each lobe has a sharply toothed outline. According to Claire Ryley the cooked roots of both species were applied as a poultice to burns and sprains as well as being used to treat gout and prevent hair loss.

Acanthus leaf decoration can be found in the National Trust’s Osterley House, where as regular readers know, I volunteer in the garden each Friday. In the late eighteenth century the house was modernised by Robert Adam. The Tudor building was transformed into a sophisticated grand mansion in the classical style. Adam’s designs reflected the latest discoveries. of the ancient world which he had seen for himself during a tour of Europe from 1754 to 1758. When I went inside the house for the recent ‘Treasures of Osterley’ exhibition I didn’t have to look far to find Acanthus leaves used in elaborate wall and ceiling plasterwork mouldings and on marble fireplace surrounds.

Thanks to those red bound volumes published in the 1970s, I still admire Corinthian columns with their leafy capitals as these photographs taken over the last year or so testify.

I was disappointed this morning when I inspected the A. mollis in my garden to find that the broad shiny leaves seem to be peppered with the first signs of the disease to which the plant is prone, powdery mildew. No doubt the frequent heavy rain of the last several weeks has spread the spores of the mildew from leaf to leaf. My strategy will be to remove the affected leaves, allowing unaffected leaves from beneath to unfurl comfortably. At least two millennia have passed since the Greeks and Romans chose Acanthus leaves to decorate their homes, public buildings and temples, and I am happy to report that with or without powdery mildew, it remains a handsome plant.

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