Perennial growing to 3 ft (1 m). Has a black, branched taproot; white, purple, or blue flowers; and dark green basal leaves up to 3 ft (1 m) in length.
Habitat & Cultivation
Native to Europe, acanthus is most commonly found as a garden plant. It prefers damp sites and low-lying ground. The leaves are gathered in early summer and the roots in autumn.
Acanthus contains large quantities of mucilage and tannin.
History & Folklore
Acanthus was well known in the ancient world. Callimacus, a Greek architect of the 5th century BCE, reputedly created the decorative pattern of foliage at the top of Corinthian columns after being inspired by the perfect symmetry of acanthus leaves. The description of acanthus in Materia Medica, written in the 1st century CE by the Greek physician Dioscorides, is one of the most accurate botanical descriptions to survive from the ancient world. Dioscorides recommended the roots in the form of a plaster to treat burns and to wrap around dislocated joints. As an infusion, acanthus was thought to be diuretic. It was also used to relieve gas and spasms and to soothe damaged nerves.
Medicinal Actions & Uses
The herb’s appreciable quantities of mucilage and tannin substantiate its traditional use as a treatment for dislocated joints and burns. Its emollient properties make it useful in the treatment of irritated mucous membranes in the digestive and urinary tracts. Acanthus is similar to marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) in that it can be used externally to ease irritation, and internally to heal and protect.