Bear’s Breeches, Oyster Plant (Acanthus mollis)

Bear’s Breeches, Oyster Plant (Acanthus mollis), saccharine ancestral totem of the Victorian garden, and another adventive discard that successfully makes its own way in the metropolitan peripheral.

Sold in Melbourne from the 1860s (and surely earlier), this broadleaved Mediterranean pile was adopted by the Victorian gardener as the purest embodiment of a garden aesthetic that necessarily privileged the fussy and resilient in equal measure. This plant is the champion of that brief, a cross between a melon and a pine tree that can survive not only watering neglect but much more malign treatment, prefiguring its reestablishment on suburban wastes.

Today Acanthus is a listed environmental weed in municipalities proximate to the Yarra and the Dandenongs, where the plant has apparently moved beyond the status of accidental thicket to a banked element in the local ecology. Elsewhere, it remains the outcome of someone’s lazy tipping, the floral equivalent of goldfish and old tyres.

This post mostly captures one extensive colony of the plant across two seasons. Frames 1-5 show this year’s flowering in close up; frames 6-9 capture last year’s spectacular inflorescence when superior rainfall, and perhaps less scrambling competition, produced a display more reflective of the heritage gardens of the city’s core than a neglected shoulder of the Merri Creek. These plants have been catching my eye since 2016, and I wonder if the resident or tradie who ditched them here has ever witnessed them from the adjacent road or railway and put two and two together.

Frame 10 is much more typical of the adventive instances of Acanthus mollis found throughout Melbourne’s margins: a pair of plants on the waste ground of a Dynon Road industrial parcel, sandwiched between road and railway and behind a bit of a nasty fence. But they got here the same way the Merri Creek miracles did, as someone’s last minute refusal to do something more time-consuming with their garden waste or demolitions.

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Search for information about Acanthus mollis in the Flora of Victoria

View information and occurrences of Acanthus mollis on the Atlas of Living Australia

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