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We have a beautiful prickly pear cactus in bloom right now that is flaunting yellow and orange blooms like a peacock does feathers. It is tucked in a garden on the south side of the house so it thrives. In fact this cactus is native to Kentucky even if most people only associate it with the desert Southwest.
When it comes to prickly plants most of us automatically think of cacti in the desert; there are others with a more subtle prick to consider for the mixed border. Look into adding some texture with Acanthus, Echinops and Eryngium.
Years ago I was visiting a garden and saw the prettiest combination of perennials that included a tall mass of Veronica longifolia backed by the erect blooms of acanthus spinosus, or bear’s britches. The graceful, nodding bloom spikes of Veronica and the unwavering and prickly appearance of Acanthus was so effective and so pretty that I quickly scribble the idea down on my note pad filled with stolen garden design ideas.
The scrolling leaves of the ornate Corinthian column were modeled after acanthus leaves which gives you an idea of its appearance. Acanthus mollis and A. spinosus(leaves are more pointed) both have good garden appeal. Highly textured foliage that is glossy and dark green looks prickly but isn’t all that bad to the touch, the potential pain comes from the blooms.
Purple-and-white blooms emerge along the bloom spike like foxglove; but that’s where the similarity ends. Each bloom has a prickly collar, or bract, from which it is nestled in. After plants are established it makes quite a display, although I am not entirely sure how it got the common name bear’s britches.
Another prickly garden perennial worthy of attention is Eryngium, or sea holly, the bloom reminds me of a medieval jester with his pointed collar. The silvery-blue, dome-shape bloom is set off by this prickly bract where the bloom meets the stem.
This bract is especially whimsical on eryngium alpinum. The almost fluffy collar of the immature flower looks like a dressed-up pilgrim…it, too, turns prickly with age. E. alpinum reaches about 2 feet.
A more dramatic sea holly, at least based on height, is Mrs. Willmot’s Ghost, or Eryngium giganteum. E. giganteum reaches 3 to 4 feet and creates a very silvery, almost steely, effect in the garden. Oh, and it got its common moniker, Mrs. Willmott’s Ghost, because this English gardener took Eryngium seeds with her when she would visit other people’s gardens and sprinkle the seeds here and there unbeknownst to her host. It is said that wherever Mrs. Willmottwent, her “ghosts” would pop up. Its ghostly reputation is also perpetuated by the plants habit to reseed itself but skipping a year or two before it shows up again.
There are a handful of Eryngium species to choose from. The prairie perennial called rattlesnake master, or Eryngium yuccafolium, dots our tall grass prairie and once established will dig deep roots that allow it to withstand drought and clayey soils. As you might suspect, e. yuccafolium has yucca-like foliage and is most appreciated for its form and texture because the flowers are smaller than other Eryngium species and the color is a muted silver-green. This one doesn’t have the collar, or bracts, like the other species, but it’s over all “cool” appearance makes it worth having.
Echinops, or globe thistle is another prickly favorite but with a little more color then Eryngium. Echinops is, indeed, reminiscent of thistle with its deeply cut leaves and round, spiky flower heads. The stems are silver and the foliage a glossy deep green. Echinops ritroisprobably the most commonly grown species, with blue spiky flower “balls”. There are cultivars that have purplish blooms, like Taplow Blue and Blue Cloud; and one that has a pink tint called Taplow Purple. The straight species has the best garden vigor by my standards, reaching up to 5 feet in height.
Prickly plants tend to like full sun and well-drained soil. I have never had a problem with acanthus in good garden soil, but the echinops and eryngium have performed better in sandier and well-drained soil on the dry side. Be sure you have a good full-sun situation if you have really rich garden soil.