Growing Bear’s Breeches Plants: How To Plant, Care for Gator Plant (Sea Holly)

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Gardening | March 8, 2024

Woman cultivating bear's breeches plants after learning how to care for and grow sea holly, gator plant, and planting tips for identifying types of bears breeches flowers.

Native to the Mediterranean region, Bear’s Breeches plants feature white, pink, or purple flowers arranged along a tall spike-like stem.

But, this “gator plant” is a great addition to gardens for the awesome benefits it can bring.

Known to scientists as Acanthus mollis, this plant goes by many nicknames, including:

  • Bear’s Breeches
  • Bear’s Britches
  • Bearsfoot
  • Oyster plant
  • Gator plant
  • Sea Holly
  • Sea Dock

While its white, purple, or pink flowers make it a popular choice for a home garden, this plant is so much more than a simple ornamental flower.

Acanthus is interwoven with both history and design, and one of the most interesting Bear’s Breeches facts involves how this plant got its name.

Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about planting and growing this uniquely beautiful plant.

Bear’s Breeches

(Acanthus mollis)

Bear's Breeches photo in oval frame on green background.
  • Characteristics: Flowering spikes with lush green leaves
  • Family: Acanthaceae
  • Genus: Acanthus
  • Leaf: Green, shiny
  • Seed: Contained in small green fruit
  • Blossoms: White, pink and purple
  • Native Habitat: Mediterranean
  • Height: 3 to 6 feet
  • Canopy: 2 to 3 feet
  • Type: Perennial
  • Native Growing Zone: 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b, 10a, 10b

Legend has it that the Greek god Apollo lusted after a nymph named Acantha.1

While spurning his advances, she scratched his face, and he took revenge by turning her into a spiky plant, the one you know today as Acanthus mollis.

The leaves of this plant can be found in art and architecture dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, and the plant itself lives on today in the humble backyard garden.

Planting Tips for Bear’s Breeches

Planting tips for Bear’s Breeches include choosing the best soil, sun exposure, watering schedule, and other factors to help this species thrive.

Growing a Bear’s Breeches From a Seed, Cutting, or Seedling

While growing a Bear’s Breeches from a seed, cutting or seedling is possible, this plant is best propagated with a divided root cutting.3 Growing Acanthus from seed is possible, but allow 21 to 25 days for germination, then expect to wait several years for blooms.3

Also, note when planning a garden, Bear’s Breeches is great at self-propagation and may spread quickly to take over the garden. If you are concerned about self-propagation or if Bear’s Breeches is considered an invasive species in your area, consider growing this plant in containers instead of directly in the soil so you can control the spread.

How Much Sunlight Does Bear’s Breeches Need Each Day?

Bear’s Breeches can thrive in full or partial sun, which may mean anywhere from 2 to 6 plus hours of direct sun exposure daily.3 The plant may require protection from direct sun during the hottest part of the afternoon, as extreme sun exposure can wilt flowers and leaves.

Water Needs for Bear’s Breeches Plants

This plant requires only about one inch of water per week once established.3 Mulching can help with moisture control and also helps to keep the plant’s roots protected from the cold during the winter.

Established Bear’s Breeches plants are drought and heat-resistant, making them an ideal choice for those with a less-than-green thumb.

How Far Apart To Plant Bear’s Breeches

Plant Acanthus 3 to 6 feet apart to allow them to grow to their full width and potential.2

Proper Bear’s Breeches plant spacing also helps to ensure adequate air circulation, which can prevent problems with mildew and fungal diseases.

Companion Plants For Growing Bear’s Breeches

Companion plants for growing Bear’s Breeches include hostas and any other shade-loving plants.6

Because Bear’s Breeches are known for their showy blooms, consider planting them along walkways and patios, or use them as a border plant.2

Growing Zones for Bear’s Breeches: Where To Grow

There are many non-native growing zones for Bear’s Breeches. Where to grow these plants depends on climate and temperature.

Because these plants are native to the Mediterranean, they do best in regions with a similar climate.

Bear’s Breeches Growing Zone

In the United States, the Bear’s Breeches growing zone includes USDA zones 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b, 10a and 10b.2 To see if you live in one of these zones, check the USDA Plant Hardiness map.4

Best Growing Conditions for Bear’s Breeches

The best-growing conditions for Bear’s Breeches include areas with either full sun or partial sun, which may include anywhere from 2 hours to 6 plus hours of direct sun each day.2 The plant can thrive in clay, sand, loam, or silt as long as the soil is well-draining and moist.2

Bear’s Breeches Growth Rate

Bear’s Breeches growth rate is very slow when the plant is young, but speeds up considerably as the plant matures.5 This plant is such a fast grower once established and spreads so quickly that it is identified as an invasive species in some parts of the U.S., including California and Oregon.3

Threats to the Acanthus Plant

Threats to the Acanthus plant are relatively minimal compared to many other ornamental plants and include pests and diseases.

Acanthus mollis Pests

Acanthus mollis pests can nibble away at the plant’s glossy leaves and colorful flowerful blooms, leaving gardeners frustrated. Common pests of the Bear’s Breeches include slugs and snails.

Fortunately, natural pest control for Bear’s Breeches is possible with these types of pests. A simple salt spray or a spread of diatomaceous earth will eliminate these garden invaders.3

You can also pick off snails and slugs by hand, or use a garden hose to spray them away.

Bear’s Breeches Disease Prevention

Bear’s Breeches disease prevention is necessary to stave off the most common diseases affecting this plant, which include:3

  • Powdery mildew
  • Fungal leaf spot disease
  • Bacterial leaf spot disease

How To Stop Bear’s Breeches Diseases

One of the best ways to stop Bear’s Breeches disease is to ensure proper air circulation around the plant.3 Lack of airflow from plants that need pruning, or plants that are too close together creates a moisture trap where diseases thrive.

Take time to plan your garden and space plants several feet apart, or relocate those that are growing too close to one another.

Another option for treating diseases on Acanthus is to prepare a homemade milk spray solution.10 The way the sun interacts with the milk fat will create a natural fungicide that keeps mildew and some plant diseases at bay.

How To Identify Bear’s Breeches

Wondering how to identify Bear’s Breeches? Start with its size.

Graphics showing how to identify Bear's Breeches showing Bear's Breeches seed, Bear's Breeches flower, and Bear's Breeches leaf in circle frames on green background.

Acanthus mollis measures 4 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide, though it can be much wider when in bloom.2

Acanthus Flower or Bear’s Breeches Flower

The Acanthus flower or Bear’s Breeches flower is the highlight of this plant. Similar in appearance to a snapdragon, it comes in purple, pink, and white and features a tubular shape.

Blooms are approximately 2 inches long and appear between May and July.2

Acanthus Leaves

Acanthus leaves are shiny. Dark green in color, they can be as long as 6 inches and are attractive in their own right, even when the plant is not in bloom.2

Bear’s Breeches Seeds

Bear’s Breeches seeds are contained within a green oval-shaped capsule.2 The seeds can be used to grow this plant, but specimens grown from seed will take several years to bloom.3

One unique thing about Bear’s Breeches leaves that can vary among different cultivars is the leaf edges. While some are smooth, others are toothed or spiky.

This is what gives Acanthus, Greek for spike, its name.

3 Types of Bear’s Breeches

While Acanthus mollis is one of the most common types of Bear’s Breeches, it’s not the only species grown in U.S. gardens.

1. Acanthus hungaricus

Acanthus hungaricus is native to Hungary. It features special types of white flowers with purple “hoods” that make it very attractive to gardeners seeking unusual blooms.7

The white petals form two “lips” that give this plant the nickname “White Lips.”

Closeup of Acanthus hungaricus showing a dense foliage of green leaves with irregular shape.

(Image: AfroBrazilian18)

Closeup shot of Spiny Bear’s Breeches (Acanthus spinosus) showing variegated leaves with long spikes around the edges and variegated purple flowers.

(Image: Chris F19)

2. Acanthus spinosus or Spiny Bear’s Breeches

Acanthus spinosus, or Spiny Bear’s Breeches is very similar to Acanthus mollis, with one exception.8 It has a stiff spine along its leaf margins, giving it a thistle-like look.8

This spine led to its nickname “Spiny Bear’s Breeches.” This species has white to purple flowers and may be variegated for visual appeal.

3. Acanthus Whitewater

Acanthus Whitewater stands out among other Bear’s Breeches plants.9 The entire plant is pink and white, with a blush-colored stem and snowy white leaves and petals.

Acanthus Whitewater showing its pink and white flowers, variegated leaves and pink flower stems, alongside other plants in a house garden.

(Image: cultivar41320)

How Is the Acanthus Leaf Used in Architecture?

Acanthus leaves have been used in architectural design since the time of the ancient Greeks, where the lead patterns were included in the Corinthian columns at the Temple of Apollo.11 The Romans expanded the use and style of Acanthus leaves, and this design is embedded within the styles now known as Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic.

Today, you can see Acanthus leaves in the Corinthian columns in the U.S. Capitol Building, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Library of Congress.12

What Is the Bear’s Breeches Symbolism?

The Bear’s Breeches leaves have served as symbols in art and design for thousands of years. In Greco-Roman art, they symbolize enduring life and are often associated with funerals.13

Because they are perennial, they are seen as a symbol of enduring life or immortality.14 As far back as 500 BCE, the Acanthus leaves have been a symbol of rebirth and resurrection.15

What Is a Perennial Flower?

Perennials, like Bear’s Breeches, are plants that continue to live for many seasons.16 While the portion of the plant above the ground may die off each winter, the root system remains and regenerates each spring.

The opposite of this is an annual, which lives only for a single growing season.

Why Is This Plant Called Bear’s Breeches?

The silly nickname for this plant comes from its Latin roots. It was once called “Ancathus sativus branca ursina,” which means “cultivated spiny bear claw.”11

Branca was mistranslated over the decades and eventually became “Bear’s Breeches.”


1The University of Chicago Press. Where Plants Come From. (2011, October 19). Chicago | The University of Chicago Press. Retrieved December 28, 2023, from <>

2N.C. Cooperative Extension. (2023). Acanthus mollis. North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. Retrieved December 28, 2023, from <>

3Iannotti, M. (2023, June 26). How to Grow and Care for Bear’s Breeches. The Spruce. Retrieved December 27, 2023, from <>

4United States Department of Agriculture. (2023). 2023 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. USDA. Retrieved December 27, 2023, from <>

5Horticulture Unlimited, Inc. (2016, January 4). BEAR’S BREECH. Horticulture Unlimited, Inc. Retrieved December 27, 2023, from <>

6Barbano, P. (2017, March 22). Bear breeches can stand low temperatures. Cape Gazette. Retrieved December 27, 2023, from <>

7Missouri Botanical Garden. (2023). Acanthus hungaricus. Missouri Botanical Garden. Retrieved December 27, 2023, from <>

8N.C. Cooperative Extension. (2023). Acanthus spinosus. North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. Retrieved December 27, 2023, from <>

9Bluestone Perennials, Inc. (2023). Acanthus Whitewater. Bluestone Perennials. Retrieved December 27, 2023, from <>

10Iannotti, M. (2021, October 15). How to Use Milk Spray to Control Powdery Mildew. The Spruce. Retrieved December 27, 2023, from <>

11Fry, L. (2017, April 6). Bear’s breech a classic acanthus beauty. Southwest Times Record. Retrieved December 27, 2023, from <>

12Architect of the Capitol. (2023). Corinthian Columns. Architect of the Capitol. Retrieved December 27, 2023, from <>

13Masters, S. (2015, January 7). Allegory. SCMA. Retrieved December 27, 2023, from <>

14Boston College. (2023). Acanthus Leaf. Media Kron | Ancient Greece. Retrieved December 27, 2023, from <>

15Blazey, J. (2022, December 5). Acanthus – an apt symbol for The Mint. MHNSW. Retrieved December 27, 2023, from <>

16University of Maryland. (2023, November 29). Perennials. University of Maryland Extension. Retrieved December 27, 2023, from <>

17Species Information Image: Purple and white flowers in tilt shift lens Photo by Laura Ockel. (2020, July 26) / Unsplash License. Cropped and added text, shape, and background elements. Unsplash. Retrieved December 26, 2023, from <>

18Acanthus hungaricus 05 Photo by AfroBrazilian. (2016, May 27) / CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED | Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International. Resized. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved December 27, 2023, from <>

19Purple Flower Buds in Close-up Photography Photo by Chris F. (2022, June 21) / Pexels License. Cropped and Resized. Pexels. Retrieved January 29, 2024, from <>

20190615 236 Corona del Mar, Sherman Gardens – Central Garden, Acanthus ‘Whitewater’ Variegated Bear’s Breeches, Farfugium japonicum ‘Gigantea’ Photo by cultivar413. (2019, July 13) / CC BY 2.0 DEED | Attribution 2.0 Generic. Resized. Flickr. Retrieved December 27, 2023, from <>