Snapdragons never go out of fashion

Antirrhinum 'Snapshot' Mix. Picture courtesy Ball StraathofAntirrhinum 'Snapshot' Mix. Picture courtesy Ball StraathofSnapdragons are reliable and easy to grow, and although they can be planted throughout the year in many regions, they really thrive during the cooler months.  Dwarf and tall varieties are available in a staggering range of flower colours. Read more below about their history and uses, and how to grow snaps successfully.  

The flowers of modern snapdragons come in almost every colour or bicolour, including red, bronze, yellow, orange, pink, purple, cream, and white. These charming flowers remain extremely popular garden plants, and many horticultural varieties exist, both for the gardening industry and for the floral industry.

Snapdragons are placed in the genus Antirrhinum, which includes about 30 to 40 species of herbaceous plants in the family Plantaginaceae, although the taxonomy of the group is contentious. The plants are mostly short-lived perennials, though some species are annuals. The species are native to rocky areas of Europe, the United States, Canada, and North Africa. However, species like the ones native to North America are not very showy and are therefore not cultivated in gardens.

The most ornamental species, Antirrhinum majus, was grown in ancient gardens since the rise of the Roman Empire, and although the actual origin of these flowers is uncertain, it is believed that they originated in the Mediterranean basin, more specifically in southern Spain, from where they spread throughout the Roman Empire. Today, wild varieties can still be found growing freely in the ruins of ancient Greece and Rome.

The snapdragon was known by many names. The Greeks knew it by the common name kynokephelon, meaning dog-headed. The Old French word for Snapdragon was muflier or snout. The Romans called it leonis ora, the Italians bocca de leon, and the Germans lowenmaul, all of which mean lion’s mouth. In Dutch and Afrikaans its common name leeuwenbek also refers to a lion’s mouth. The botanical name given to Antirrhinum majus comes from the Greek word “antirrinon”, and in Greek, the word “anti” means ‘like’ while “rrhinum” means ‘snout’, so the name means  ‘like a snout or nose’. In English, common names for the snapdragon include: dragon’s snout, dog’s mouth, calf’s snout, and toad’s mouth.

Antirrhinum 'Speedy Sonnet' Mix. Picture courtesy Ball StraathofAntirrhinum 'Speedy Sonnet' Mix. Picture courtesy Ball StraathofAll of these names reflect the unique, muzzle-like shape of the snapdragon bloom, which, if one gently squeezes the sides of the flower together rhythmically, it will pop open and closed like a snapping jaw.  Small children are delighted by these jaw-opening flowers and because snaps are so easy to grow from seed, children can easily be persuaded to try their hand at growing snapdragons in their own little garden. Even the dried seed pods cannily resemble tiny human skulls, so children will love to collect the seeds for next season too. Best of all snapdragons are not poisonous for humans and pets.

Interestingly, small insects are not strong enough to separate the flower’s petals to reach its interior, and only larger insects like bumblebees can pollinate snapdragons.

Because the snapdragon has been a popular ornamental cut flower for centuries, it has a rich history in European folklore, and it was said that snapdragons provided shelter for elves, and possessed magical qualities that were used to protect against charms and enchantments.

Both the first-century AD Greek pharmacologist, Pedanius Dioscorides, whose work, De materia medica, was the foremost classical source of modern botanical terminology and the leading pharmacological text for 16 centuries, and the Greek physician, Pliny the elder, an author, naturalist and natural philosopher, and naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, both advised wearing a bracelet of the flowers to stave off illness and protect against poisoning. Pliny also recorded that rubbing oneself with snapdragon could improve one’s appearance. Ancient Greek magicians believed that, by holding a snapdragon flower beneath one’s tongue during sleep, and reciting a magical incantation upon rising, invisibility could be achieved.

A German folktale tells of a woman who is placed under magical enchantment by an elf in order to kidnap her, and as she follows him away from her home, he warns her to lift her skirt so as not to damage the snapdragons growing underfoot. The woman, spotting a chance to escape, crushes the snapdragons under her feet and releases herself from the elf’s magic spell.

Mankind’s love affair with the snapdragon continued through the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries, when snapdragons were believed to bring charisma, glory, honour, and social status, and were commonly worn for receptions at court. As early as 1629, English herbalist John Parkinson, in his Paradisi de Sole, wrote of the many colours and varieties of snapdragon flowers. European settlers brought their snapdragon cultivars with them to the New World, and seeds were available for sale in the colonies as early as 1760.

Antirrhinum Dwarf Mix. Picture courtesy Nu-leaf NurseryAntirrhinum Dwarf Mix. Picture courtesy Nu-leaf NurseryThe snapdragon retains its importance today among modern practitioners of magic and Wicca, who celebrate its protective powers against charms, curses and magic by placing a fresh bouquet of snapdragons on their altars when casting protective charms. Many still plant protective borders of snapdragons around their gardens or homes, and it is advised that if you’re outside and you happen to feel there is evil nearby, step on a snapdragon or hold the blossom in your hand until the feeling passes.  If you suspect someone is sending bad energy against you, simply place snapdragons on the altar with a mirror behind them to send it back. Any part of the plant can be worn to keep people from deceiving you, and the seeds worn as a charm around the neck, keeps you from being bewitched.

Snapdragons have been of some importance to science, which has used them as a model for molecular leaf development; and studies of snapdragon rust has led scientists to a closer understanding of fungal rusts and how they affect plants. Science textbooks use the self-pollinating nature of the snapdragon to illustrate how botanists can create new hybrids by crossbreeding. Like many other flowers, snapdragons carry both pollen and egg cells within each bloom, meaning that they do not require the presence of other snapdragons for pollination. Self-pollinating flowers can be crossbred by removing the pollen-carrying structures from the blooms and then artificially pollinating the flowers from another plant.

Modern breeding of hybrid varieties, which began in the early 20th century, has made snapdragons even more popular by removing the plant’s one ornamental defect, namely, that the blooms of un-hybridized plants fall off after being pollinated. Today the hybrids are classified commercially in a range of heights: midget or dwarfs grow 15 to 20cm tall, mediums grow 40 to 75cm, and tall varieties which can reach 75 to 120cm. The beautiful trailing varieties like ‘Luminaire’ are harder to find in SA currently, but seed can probably be procured online.

Uses:

Snapdragons are not considered economically important in the modern world, and although they can be used medicinally they are not as effective as many other herbs. However, in an emergency it is good to know that they can be used in the following ways.

An infusion of both the flowers and leaves can be made into an ointment for rashes and sunburns, or a tea which is gargled to treat a sore throat and ulcers of the mouth. The leaves have bitter and stimulant properties, and have also been used to treat stomach ulcers. An infusion made from the flowers of the snapdragon can be used to treat jaundice, though it is not as effective as other herbal remedies.

The oil of snapdragon seeds is said to be just as healthy as olive oil, and has been extracted in Russia for culinary use since the 15th century. Russian legend tells of a poor farmer who lived amongst a vast field of wild snapdragons. One day, a stranger appeared, asking for something to eat and although the poor farmer did not have much, he invited the stranger to share his last loaf of bread, and apologized that he had no butter. The stranger replied that he could offer an alternative and went outside, returning quickly with a bunch of wild snapdragons, he removed their seeds and squeezed the seed oil onto the farmer’s bread. This seed oil was so delicious, the farmer began harvesting the snapdragon seeds around his home, expressing the oil himself, and selling it at market. Thanks to the stranger’s kindness, the farmer eventually prospered.

Antirrhinum 'Twinny' Double. Picture courtesy Nu-leaf NurseryAntirrhinum 'Twinny' Double. Picture courtesy Nu-leaf NurseryIn the Garden & Home:

Snapdragons never go out of fashion, and in season you will always find packets of seeds or trays of snapdragon seedlings alongside other annuals,  because they are simply so reliable and easy to grow, bringing great pleasure to gardeners worldwide.  They have also long been a favourite garden play-thing of children, and are highly recommended for a child’s garden.

Snaps are wonderful planted in large swathes in mixed flower borders, and the dwarf varieties make excellent edging plants and are perfect in pots. The tall growers, with their upright, formal growth habit, do not take up much space and stay neat, making then perfect in even small gardens.

No matter their height, the upright growth habit of snapdragons adds vertical contrast to garden beds and pots. Although snaps make a bold statement if planted on their own, their vast colour palette allows you to mix them effortlessly with other flowering annuals for a long-lasting effect, so include snapdragons to mixed plantings in window boxes, hanging baskets and containers of all sizes.
Try planting snaps as a back-drop for spring flowering bulbs like daffodils, ranunculus, anemone, or sparaxis, with a border of pansies and violas in front for a beautiful effect.

Snapdragons are just as effective in a modern setting as they are in traditional cottage or cutting gardens, and because they come in every colour you can think of, they can be used in any colour scheme.

Be sure to select colours that go with your interior colours, as snaps are fantastic cut flowers.  When picking for the vase, or when purchasing freshly cut snapdragons, ensure that at least two to five flowers are open per stem. To extend the life of your blooms, add one ½ teaspoon of sugar and two drops of bleach to 1 litre of water to fill your vase. Remove the lower foliage but be careful not to remove too many leaves as this can promote premature flower drop.  Re-cut the flower stems under water before arranging, and check the water level frequently as snapdragons drink lots of water. With the proper care the vase life for snapdragons is around 5 to 16 days.

In the Kitchen:

Because snapdragon flowers are edible, with virtually no flavour except for a slight bitterness, their bright colours are often used to garnish elegant food preparations such as cakes, tarts and pastries, and are also used alongside salads, frittatas, crepes, spring rolls, fruit platters, or floating atop specialty cocktails.

Antirrhinum 'Madame Butterfly' Picture courtesy Ball StraathofAntirrhinum 'Madame Butterfly' Picture courtesy Ball StraathofCultivation:

Snapdragons can be grown throughout the year in most regions of South Africa, but they prefer growing during the cooler months, and in the heat of summer they can sulk and stop blooming for a while, resuming once the weather cools down again. In the winter rainfall regions, snapdragons are traditionally sown or planted out in autumn before the winter rains arrive, and are considered great water-wise annuals. In hot and humid regions snaps are also planted in autumn for a winter and early spring show. In humid regions they are susceptible to fungal diseases, so try not to water them overhead and ensure that they are spaced correctly to encourage good air flow around the leaves.  In dry areas they will require regular watering.

Snapdragons can withstand fairly cold weather, and you may have seen pansies or snapdragons blooming through snow. Frost however is another story altogether, and although snaps may survive an occasional hard freeze, if the temperatures continually drop below freezing, they will probably suffer frost damage. In very cold regions the plants can be overwintered with protection in the form of mulching, or frost covers.

Snapdragons love full sun but will grow in partial shade, and if you are growing them in summer, semi-shade is probably best.  For the tall varieties, select a spot that is protected from strong winds. Plant or sow into well-prepared beds that drain well, because although snaps enjoy regular watering their roots are susceptible to rotting. Adding compost and some organic fertiliser is always recommended. During winter it is best to water on sunny mornings so that the foliage can dry off by evening, otherwise rust and mildew could develop.

The best soil germination temperatures are between 18 and 24°C in autumn or spring, and seed can be sown directly into beds, or into seedling trays. Cover the seeds lightly with sifted soil, and for seedling trays you can cover the seed lightly with sifted soil or perlite before watering and placing the trays in bright light. Seeds will take 4 to 7 days to germinate and should flower in about 14 weeks.

When the seedlings are about 10cm tall, pinch off the stem tips to encourage shorter but more abundant flower spikes. If you are purchasing trays of snapdragon seedlings try to purchase them ‘green’ but if they already have flowers or buds, cut them off before planting. This allows the plant to concentrate on root growth, which in turn means a sturdier, bushy plant that will later shoot nice strong flowering spikes.

Cutting the flowers regularly for the vase will force the plants to produce additional stems that will bloom later in the season. Removing dead flower spikes regularly, called "deadheading", will also prolong their flowering period. When they do stop flowering, cut the plants back by two thirds, mulch with compost and feed. This, together with regular watering, will encourage the plants to grow and produce one more set of blooms.

Antirrhinum Double Twinny 'Appleblossom' Picture courtesy Ball StraathofAntirrhinum Double Twinny 'Appleblossom' Picture courtesy Ball StraathofPropagation:

Snaps are easily grown from seed harvested at the end of the season, and collecting them is a lot of fun, especially for children, as the dried seed pods cannily resemble tiny human skulls. You can collect seeds by letting the flowers fade naturally instead of deadheading them. Once the pods are brown, remove them and put them into a brown paper bag or envelope to dry out completely. Remove the seeds and replant them immediately, or store in a cool, dry place.

The best soil germination temperatures are between 18 and 24°C, and if you’re starting your seeds in trays indoors, press the seed lightly into a moist growing material like palm peat. Transplant the seedlings into bigger pots or trays to grow on before transplanting into the garden.

Snapdragons can also be propagated from cuttings. You want to choose a healthy parent plant, free of any damages or diseases. Take cuttings 5 to 6cm in length, cutting just below a leaf node. As with preparing the cuttings of other plants, you must also remove the leaves at the bottom of the stem, leaving only those at the top, as this helps to prevent rot.

Drill holes into the growing medium with a pencil before dipping the cuttings in rooting hormone, and planting deeply or almost up to the top leaves. The best soil temperatures are between 18 and 24°C, so keep them in a warm spot with good light, and keep the growing medium slightly moist but not soggy by misting lightly with a spray bottle as required.  Also try to keep the growing environment reasonably humid by placing the cuttings in a little greenhouse or misting regularly until they root.  Once the cuttings have rooted, reduce humidity and transplant into individual pots or trays to grow on.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Rust fungus can be a significant problem with snapdragons. If rust does appear in a planting, it is best to grow snapdragons in another part of the garden the following year. This plant is also susceptible to mould, fungal leaf spots, downy mildew, wilt, and root rots. To help prevent this, ensure the soil has good drainage, space the plants correctly to ensure good air flow around the leaves, and do not water overhead. During winter it is best to water on sunny mornings so that the foliage can dry off by evening, otherwise rust and mildew could develop. During the rainy season spray with fungicide to prevent rust.

Aphids and spider mites are the most common pest problem, which may require the use of pesticides or horticultural oils in severe infestations.

Warning:

Snapdragons are not poisonous for humans, dogs, cats or chickens. However it is always recommended that small children and pets are supervised in gardens, and discouraged from chewing on plants.

Always consult with a medical professional before ingesting or using any plant medicinally.