Bears Breeches and Angelica (and Plants and Philosophy)

From Garden Flora: The Natural and Cultural History of the Plants In Your Garden by Noel Kingsbury:

Acanthus includes around 30 species of shrubby and herbaceous plants from the Mediterranean region, down into northern and eastern Africa and across into western Asia. The name is from the Greek for ‘spiny’; Acantha was a minor figure in Greek mythology, a nymph who got turned into a plant by Apollo after she fought off one of the unwanted sexual advances of which ancient mythology is so full….

Acanthus is most famous as being the model for the ornamental leaves found on the capitals (pillar tops) of the so-called Corinthian order of ancient Greek architecture. Given the popularity of Classical architecture, the acanthus leaf has reappeared ever since as carved or printed ornament, in both buildings and paintings….

“The rather odd common name of bears’ breeches is obscure in origin, without any recorded explanation.”

From The Naming of Names: The Search for Order in the World of Plants by Anna Pavord:

“[Theophrastus] is the first to recognise, in the 500 plants that he includes in his Enquiry, many of the characteristics which eventually helped to determine how plants were to be classified. He notes that some plants are annual, completing the whole of their cycle of growth in a single year; others are perennial, springing up each year from the same rootstock, and dying down to the ground in winter. He sees how some plants seem to fall into natural groups or families, especially those plants which have tiny white flowers arranged in wide flat heads on top of hollow stems.

“Later, when a more specialised language began to emerge to serve this demanding new discipline, flowerheads of this kind became known as umbels….

The term was then used to label all plants that had this characteristic flat head of flowers – the Umbelliferae: angelica, carrot, celery, dill, fennel, parsley, parsnip, cow parsley, hogweed, Queen Anne’s lace, sweet cicely, alexanders, ground elder. And the deadly poisonous hemlock. There was a clear and pressing incentive to understand the difference between this plant and its similar wild cousins.”


Dig into the names of plants for a while, and you’ll invariably encounter characters from Greek mythology, and, as I recently learned, Greek philosophers. Actual human beings! The philosophers that is.

My knowledge of Greek mythology never advanced much beyond watching The Mighty Hercules cartoons as a tyke (my favorite character was Daedelus, portrayed as an evil wizard); but I did spend a couple years dabbling in philosophy back in the twentieth century. I eventually switched my studies from philosophy to history, after discovering how dwelling in the minds of philosophers was a bit too much like never getting out of my own head… and history, at least, led me to explore the world around me and try to connect the past with the present, even in my own neighborhood and at historical sites like The Atlanta History Center and Oakland Cemetery.

The Greek philosophers were especially fond of sorting things — their mythology also reflects that — in the sense that they were compelled to observe the external world and try to classify and organize what they saw. Pummeled with all sorts of information the way us “moderns” are, we easily forget that those oak trees or dandelions encountered on a walk through our ‘hood once had no names, and, as important, no explicit differentiation from each other.

Initially, through Aristotle, plants got separated from animals; then his student Theophrastus documented 500 species of plants within the spaces he explored, extending Aristotle’s plant-and-animal distinctions by naming plants and defining plants-as-plants with descriptions of their individual parts. As Anna Pavord tells us in The Naming of Names: The Search for Order in the World of Plants:

“Theophrastus is the first in the long list of men who fought to find the order they believed must exist in the dizzying variety of the natural world. He lays out the puzzle, nudges together a few pieces that he thinks might fit. Fitfully, over the next 2,000 years, the puzzle is taken up by a series of philosophers, doctors, apothecaries, each of whom adds to the picture, links a few more pieces together, until finally, by the end of the seventeenth century, the whole picture begins to make sense….

“We now have written descriptions of 422,000 plant species. Theophrastus knew about 500, half of which had already appeared in Greek poetry, plays, essays…. But Theophrastus was the first person to devote serious attention to the business of naming plant names….

“He was the first person to discuss plants in relationship to each other, not just in terms of their usefulness to man. Magic and medicine both provided powerful practical incentives to know more about plants, but Theophrastus wanted to know them in a different way, just for the sake of knowing. From that knowledge, connections between plants gradually emerged which helped to make sense of the natural world….”

If you’ve ever tried to explain a plant’s parts — the leaves, the stems, the flowers, the parts of a flower, as you (or I) might do when writing about a photograph, or painting, or drawing one — you’re pulling from a philosophical tradition that goes back at least to the Greek philosophers and creatives, and probably even further into Eastern traditions of regions like China and India that had an equally vibrant culture of learning about and making use of the things growing from the ground around them. That “oak tree” and “dandelion” look a little different now, don’t they?

The photos below have been hanging around in my Lightroom catalog for a while; I took them while hunting down other flowers at Oakland Cemetery’s gardens — especially the lilies and irises. It wasn’t until I found out what they were called — and how far their botanical names went back historically — that I decided to post my photos of the Bears’ Breeches and Angelica. I mean, who can resist those names, especially “Bears’ Breeches”! And “umbel” by the way — which is a description of the Angelica flower’s form, connects it to the plant family Umbelliferae, and whose word history gives us “umbrella” — also describes the flower structure of lantana in photos I previously posted.

Here are the Bears’ Breeches, growing at the border between a shaded and sunlit area next to some old urns… enough breeches for several (very small) bears!

The Angelica stood tall in a large bunch near the base of an oak tree, looking like two different plants depending on the age of the flowers. The older flowers — like these two and the three immediately following — were dry to the touch and lively with dozens of tiny bees flitting among the red or rust-colored buds. I couldn’t quite get a sharp shot of the bees in motion — they wouldn’t stay still! — but here you can see three of them coming in for a landing, and then… landed.

From the same plant, here are some younger blooms, just beginning to open. A bit of the red color that will eventually appear as the plant ages and dries out is visible on some of the tops of the blooms. The bees, for whatever reason, seemed uninterested in the white blooms, a little something that might be worth learning more about on its own.

There were only a few fully opened flowers, since it was late in the summer season when I took these photos. Here’s one of them; the detail is quite fantastic. Select the picture to view it in a slide show and then choose Info/View Full Size (or click here) if you’d like to get a closer look.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

Late Summer/Early Fall Lantana (4 of 4)

From The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture (1917 edition) by Liberty Hyde Bailey:

“The culture of the florists’ lantana is relatively simple. It is grown under glass for bloom in cold weather and also in the open in summer. It has been improved in its usefulness as a bedding-plant of late years, largely through the efforts of French hybridists. The older varieties were mostly rather tall and lanky, later coming into bloom, and dropped their flowers badly after rain-storms, but were showy in warm and dry weather. The new varieties are dwarf, spreading and bushy in habit, early and free-flowering, and the heads or umbels of bloom average much larger, with florets in proportion; nor do they drop from the plants as did old varieties in bad weather….

“These newer kinds are not so well known as they should be. They are very desirable for any situation where sun-loving bedding plants are used, in groups or borders, window boxes, baskets and vases.”

From “Bedding Out” in Colour in My Garden (1918) by Louise Beebe Wilder:

“Lantanas were favourite bedding plants of yore….

“I remember that my father alway stood out for two lozenge-shaped beds of Lantana on the terrace in front of our old stone house, and how he gloried in their vivacious colours….”


This is the last of four posts featuring photos of lantana plants in my garden. The previous posts are:

Late Summer/Early Fall Lantana (1 of 4)

Late Summer/Early Fall Lantana (2 of 4)

Late Summer/Early Fall Lantana (3 of 4)

Whenever I see the word “yore” (as in the second quotation above) — which is of course not often! — I can’t help but think about the Friends episode called The One with the Apothecary Table, where Rachel Green tries to convince Phoebe Buffay that the apothecary table she bought from Pottery Barn was anciently manufactured in historical White Plains and purchased from a flea market for the “old time pricing” of “one and fifty dollars”. There’s a short clip of the episode here, where the first three and a half minutes include two of the apothecary table scenes.

If there’s such a thing as post-consumerist humor, The One with the Apothecary Table is a great example, where the characters as a group simultaneously love and hate mass-produced products, yet respond to the subtle (or not so subtle) advertised messages by opening their wallets and stuffing their apartments with objects from a catalog-created theme.

The episode is a fun play on history also. Subsequently asked to identify an historical era other than “yore”, Rachel adds “yesteryear” — and “yesteryear and yore” briefly re-entered American vernacular as a way to describe ambiguous time periods in the past. I’ve used them myself sometimes, sometimes together and sometimes separately; and the cultural pervasiveness of a series like Friends is so strong that almost anyone who hears the terms knows they’re actually a reference to the comedy of the apothecary tables.

Yesteryear — for example, in 2018 or 2019 or 2020 — I wouldn’t have even tried to convert some of the lantana photos from the previous three posts to images with black backgrounds, because the tiny spaces embedded in the central portion of the blooms were too difficult to brush out without bleeding black onto the flowers themselves. Until I spent several weeks practicing — especially on the Lilies on Black Backgrounds series from this past summer (where I describe my black background technique) — I didn’t have enough experience with Lightroom’s brushes to fill these areas with black where the surrounding structure was as intricate as it is on these lantana flowers.

With macro photos like these, depth is largely a contrast and shadow illusion, an illusion that overlooks the fact that all photographs are two-dimensional renderings of what our eyes would perceive three-dimensionally. Bright-to-dark transitions typically register in our minds as front-to-back perspective, and shadows around edges (as muted as they might be) contribute to that recognition. In other words, if I didn’t leave some of the shadows around the edges of the pink flower buds, those image elements would look flat to the eye, and, as a result, the entire image would look unnatural and artificial.

If you look at one of the original images — say this one, of the first photo below — you will see green color from the plant’s stems and leaves surrounding most of the pink center buds. On my “first draft” of these photos, I kept that green intact, but since most of them had no other green, it seemed distracting so I decided to try and get rid of it.

To remove the green without brushing around each of the little pink pillows, I used a Lightroom feathered and circular brush the size of the pink section only and clicked on a bit of green color toward the center. The feathering setting for the brush kept the pink color intact, retained most of the shadows at the edges of each pink bud, and replaced the green with a black that matched the rest of the background with a single press of the mouse button. No more green — and Voila! — the blossoms themselves totally look like they’re suspended in mid-air!

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

Late Summer/Early Fall Lantana (3 of 4)

From The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture (1917 edition) by Liberty Hyde Bailey:

“Lantana have been long in cultivation, and it is difficult to refer the garden forms to botanical species. The species themselves are confusing. Most of the garden kinds are of the L. Camara type….

“In recent years, a strain of very dwarf varieties has become popular as border plants. The lantanas are free-flowering in winter and summer, but an odor of foliage and flowers that is disagreeable to many persons prevents them from popular use as cut flowers. They are very useful in window-gardens and the dwarf kinds make good subjects for hanging baskets….

“From the window they may be transferred to the open in summer, where they bloom profusely.”


This is the third of four posts featuring photos of lantana plants in my garden; the first post is Late Summer/Early Fall Lantana (1 of 4) and the second post is Late Summer/Early Fall Lantana (2 of 4).

The botanical confusion allusion in my quotation from the Cyclopedia above made its way into my researching around the web for quotes about lantana. The short version of the story, which I finally got a handle on, is this: the plant’s colloquial name as lantana was co-opted from the name of an unrelated plant — viburnum lantana — and older books will sometimes refer to garden or wildwood lantana as viburnum instead of lantana. And, to stumble my brain even a bit more, garden lantana is a member of the verbena family of plants — and some references in historical sources simply refer to lantana as verbena, especially references to wilder variations as opposed to varieties cultivated for gardens.

Make sense? haha! If it’s in someone’s garden, and it looks like my photos, it’s lantana camara. If not, it’s not!

Botany is a hoot!

Thanks for taking a look!

Late Summer/Early Fall Lantana (2 of 4)

From Beautiful at All Seasons: Southern Gardening and Beyond by Elizabeth Lawrence:

“Lantana is the saving grace of the fall borders. The dark leaves keep their color until frost, and the flowers bloom on and on. I noticed that butterflies return to them again and again, after short trips to other flowers.”


This is the second of four posts featuring photos of lantana plants in my garden; the first post is Late Summer/Early Fall Lantana (1 of 4).

Thanks for taking a look!

Late Summer/Early Fall Lantana (1 of 4)

From Beautiful at All Seasons: Southern Gardening and Beyond by Elizabeth Lawrence:

“For late summer I depend on lantana to fill in the gaps left by the earlier perennials that have finished blooming. It blooms best when the nights are cool, and comes into its own when its fresh foliage and gay flowers are most needed. Some years it blooms until Thanksgiving….

Some people dislike the gaudy orange and pink that is the characteristic color of the flowers, but by choosing among plants already in bloom, you can get a creamy white, a clear cool yellow, and a very good pink….

Lantana grows very fast and needs plenty of room to spread for it takes up at least three or four feet by the end of the season. If it is grown from seed, they should be sown under glass in February.”


This is the first of four posts featuring photos of several lantana plants in my garden, taken in August through mid-September. Mine don’t usually bloom through November, but may — if October isn’t too cold — push out a few new blooms until Halloween, after which I cut it back to nearly ground level then patiently wait until spring for the first appearance of tiny leaves on its very stiff and woody stems. Cutting it back is probably optional — and some gardeners don’t even recommend that — but I always prune mine to control its rapid and potentially explosive spread… and it doesn’t seem to mind!

Of the photos that will appear in this series, those in the galleries below show the smallest of the blooms, wee pinwheel shapes about an inch in diameter, demonstrating the flowers’ unique symmetry.

Thanks for taking a look!