Monday, 30 June 2014

The reluctant bear’s breeches

I spoke disparagingly about the lack of flower on my acanthus in a recent post. I think I must have shamed it into action – this year it would appear that we are to be favoured with at least one flower spike. This is not quite a unique event in the history of our garden, but in the eight years since we’ve planted the thing it has flowered only twice, and on the first of these occasions it chose to do so in something of a clandestine manner. One late summer’s evening, having all but given up hope for another year, I parted the leaves and peered into the heart of the deep green foliage – the cool, dark shade home to an army of snails who, it seems, prefer the acanthus for the shelter it offers them, rather than for its nutritional value. Nestled modeestly and, it must be said, rather uselessly in the centre of the plant was the shortest inflorescence imaginable, clearly either too shy or too lazy to elevate itself above the foliage in the traditional manner. Hopeless.

Some years ago I found myself at a loose end in the middle of Athens, and whiled the afternoon away in a park not far from Syntagma Square. Here, acanthus romped away like weeds, great drifts of the things in full flower – hardly surprising for a genus so closely identified with its home in the Mediterranean that its leaves became one of the most common motifs to ornament the architecture of the classical period. But while they're clearly in their element in an Athenian recreation ground, there’s nothing particularly Mediterranean about my back garden in Kent. It’s not that the plant is unhappy here – reliably producing an architectural cascade of luxuriant foliage year on year, it may be that it is too happy. Sometimes, a plant needs to be panicked into flowering. With this in mind, I’ve completely neglected this part of the border for several years now, with the exception of weeding and clearing away the spent leaves in late winter; no feeding, no watering. Perhaps it’s the tough love that will yield this year’s flowers. Or perhaps it’s just fluke. That’s the thing about gardening; it’s all very well to make an educated guess. But you’re never quite sure.