From the descriptions given by seventeenth-century writers, Acanthus mollis would have been ideal to have in a first aid kit. Parkinson and Gerard both describe the roots as “a remedie for lims that are burnt with fire”, as well as saying that the plant was “good for those members that are out of joynt to confirme and strengthen them”. It was also said to be good for “those that have faln from some high place, that are bruised and... beaten, and that have overstrained themselves” and “those that be broken, and be troubled with the crampe”.
Treatments using Acanthus mollis were not solely the preserve of the dangerously over-active, however. Gerard and Parkinson also prescribe the roots for “those that are falling into a consumption”, those suffering with gout, and anyone needing something to “provoke urine, and stop the belly”. The roots could even be used in a plaster to cure “the ache and numnesse of the hands and feet”. And, as if that wasn’t enough, they also talk of Acanthus mollis being taken “with good successe against sundry maladies” in a ‘glister’ or ‘clyster’ – the seventeenth-century term for an enema.
The names: a bear's necessities
Acanthus mollis appears in the 1648 and 1658 catalogues of the Botanic Garden as ‘Acanthus sativus branca ursina’, and in a contemporary herbarium as ‘Acanthus sive branca ursina’. A later dried specimen labelled ‘Carduus Acanthus siva Branca Ursina’ can be identified as Acanthus mollis, which is now the plant’s accepted scientific name.
The species’ common name is bear’s breeches – the literal translation of ‘branca ursina’ from the old Latin names. Quite how Acanthus mollis got this name is something of a mystery as there’s certainly no obvious link, and in the absence of a scientific consensus your guess is as good as any other!
A brief history of bear's breeches
Acanthus mollis is not a species native to the British Isles. Originally from the Mediterranean region, it was well known to the ancients: its leaves are the basis for the design of the tops of Corinthian columns (from the 5th century BC), and it is thought that the Romans introduced it to Britain in the first millennium AD. It may have been reintroduced in 1548 to the country’s gardens, but was not recorded growing wild until 1820.