Design Vocabulary: Acanthus Leaves

Today’s Design Vocabulary term is hiding in plain sight. Once you understand what this term means, you’ll realize that you can find this motif everywhere.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

We’re looking at Acanthus leaves today (pronounced “Ah-CAN-thus”). And you can find them in all sorts of places, both inside and out. That is the flowering variety in the picture shown above, which is rather pretty. You can see the plant has very sharply edged leaves at the base of it. Those are what we are going to go looking for today. Here is a different variety of the Acanthus plant that shows a larger version of those leaves. Take a good look:

Image courtesy of

These leaves had been popular as a design motif for centuries. I can even say that they have been popular for millennia. Let’s look at some of the roots of this plant to see why it is so popular over time. (Oops. Sorry about the pun in that last sentence. Just happened.)

Paging Molly Ringwald

The Acanthus plant is supposedly named after “Acantha”, a minor female character in Greek mythology. She was attractive enough to catch the eye of  Mt. Olympus’s original god-as-a-gift-to-women character, Apollo. Apollo rarely met a woman that he didn’t like and he also didn’t like to hear a girl say the word “No”. He’s kinda like the smart, rich, cute guy you see in all the party scenes in classic John Hughes films. He may seem fun while he’s flirting with you, but you still have that gut feeling that this is not going to end well for you if it goes any further.

DUDE! You just know that missing arm was holding out a beer, don’t you? Image courtesy of the University of Texas

Anyway, Acantha, smart girl, apparently told Apollo “No”. But, since he was a god and all, Apollo couldn’t have his reputation as playboy-deity-of-the-civilized-world diminished, so he did what most jerky gods did in those days to people who stood up for themselves. Her turned her into something else. A plant. With almost-off-putting sharp leaves. “Acantha” now roughly translates from Greek to English as “thorny”, which you can kinda see in those spiked leaves shown above. (Is this Apollo’s way of calling her an ugly name for all eternity? You be the judge.)

So, now you can see how the plant supposedly got its name and we are waaaaay back in ancient Greece.

Slap Some Decor On That Building

Now we all know that the ancient Greeks were brilliant at building. Cities, streets, civic spaces, temples. You dream it, they could build it. And it lasted pretty darn well. Pictured below is an ancient Greek column, in modern-day Athens:

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

See those leaf things growing up from around the top of the column? Those are our Acanthus leaves. The Greeks figured out that with a little sculpting those common plant leaves were actually very decorative as a natural motif on their sleek new buildings. (Take that, Apollo.)

By the way, if you are a long-time reader of this blog or have already perused the Design Vocabulary archives, you absolutely get extra credit if you can also identify the Egg-and-Dart motif on that column above! (Or you can read more about that right here.)

Leaves Going Viral

Ancient Greece was a popular marketplace for all sorts of trading. So, other cultures picked up the Acanthus leaves motif, too. You can easily find it embedded in Byzantine architecture and ALL OVER the work of the ancient world’s original copy cats…the Roman Empire. The Romans took the very best of every culture they conquered and claimed it as their own.

Greek and Roman architecture had a great revival in the 18th century. Most of the world calls this period’s architecture “Classical Revival”. In America, we also call this period “Federal”. You can find Federal style buildings all over the US in the form of government buildings and important institutions. Here is a very famous American building in the Federal style:

Image courtesy of

See those familiar leaves, now curling, at the tops of the columns on the left? Those are our acanthus leaves, back for another round of popularity. And they weren’t just used outside, either. The 18th and 19th century loved “Classical Revival” motifs so you can find great versions of those leaves in sound a house, too. Here’s a bit of pretty reproduction architecture of that period, pretending to be structural support in a doorway…

Image courtesy of

…and here are our leaves hung in a decorative swag on a piece of Wedgwood pottery:

Image courtesy of

There was a famous English style-maker of the 19th century named William Morris. He loved to use botanical themes in his popular wallpapers, many of which still survive today, as does his company. Acanthus leave show up in a lot of his designs, whether they are the focus of the design…

Image courtesy of Morris & Co.

…or play more of a supporting role for other flowers and nature patterns:

Image courtesy of Morris & Co.

Today, you can still find acanthus leaves showing up in home furnishings, including everything from custom tiles…

Image courtesy of

…to modern area rugs.

Image courtesy of Dalyn Rugs

See the curl of the acanthus leaves as it reaches out toward the flowers? This is the same curl we can find in architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. Can you see what I mean when I say these leaves are hiding in plain sight?

How many times have you looked at an American government building and never noticed the acanthus leaves? Where can you spot them in your part of the world? Leave a comment and share your sightings!

Coming tomorrow: Kitchen tools that give you more space!

Posted on May 29, 2012, in Architecture, Design Vocabulary. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I never thought about there was a name for this leaf. I just figured someone stuck on some leaves. This was interesting!

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