Monday, June 28, 2010

Dragons in the Garden, Part I

Every flower in my garden sparks pleasure and satisfaction in me when I see it, but the ones that plant themselves and spring up seemingly out of nowhere to shout "Surprise!" are my favorites. In this category of "Best Impromptu Performance," the award would definitely go to the snapdragons.

I've purchased and planted snapdragons in the past, but in recent years there's been no need to do so, because their descendants send up spears of color every spring not only in the pots that held their parents, but also in the most unlikely corners and dry spots in the yard.

And what colors! Snapdragons blaze in sunset colors of orange, yellow, pink, red, purple, and red-purple. And lavender, melon, ruby, and crimson. You can also cleanse your palate (or "palette," in this case) with snapdragons as white as cumulous clouds. Any of these may also boast fringes and highlights in other colors.

My current crop of snapdragons tend toward the cooler colors--there's a lavender, a pink-purple, and a nearly-black purple snapdragon growing in the front yard as well as one crisp white plant. Recently a yellow and plum snapdragon snaked out from the rockery wall over the driveway.

Snapdragons range in size from petite six-inchers to tall three-footers; mine seem to top out at about two and a half feet. The shortest one grows in a pot outside the door. It's about 18 inches tall but makes up for its short stature in bulk: this plant is a five-headed dragon, with each flower-bedecked raceme curving in a different direction.

Some of these 'dragons may actually be springing back to life in the manner of a phoenix, because snapdragons (which are native to the Mediterranean) are actually perennials, though they are generally regarded and sold as annuals in the United States. My growing zone in the Northwest, however, is often likened to a Mediterranean climate (though without the spanikopita, ouzo, and endless-summer "Shirley Valentine"/"Mama Mia" romantic atmosphere).

Did I know they were perennials because I'm, like, a totally know-it-all gardener in touch with Earth and all her children? No, I did not. I had to look it up. In the process, I learned the following:

The snapdragon's scientific name is Antirrhinum majus. "Antirrhinum" is derived from Greek words that come together to mean "like a nose." Since "majus" means "larger," this poor flower's name basically means "big schnozzola." Fortunately, its common name "snapdragon" comes to the rescue here. Gently squeeze the sides of a snapdragon flower to see it snap its jaws, and you won't be in any doubt as to how it acquired this evocative name.

And not just any insect can come along and dip into a snapdragon flower's largesse of nectar. Oh, no. Only one of the right size, with enough heft to make the flower's lower lip drop, will be able to burrow into the blossom. This lucky insect is typically a bumblebee (honeybees are apparently too light to tip the lip).

The flower welcomes this pollinator by providing a landing platform complete with "conical epidermal cells" (what you and I would call by the more technical name of "tiny little bumps"). This provides traction for the bee, a no-slip grip mat to help it get a foothold. Studies show that bumblebees shun mutant flowers that lack these cells.

But other studies show that some naughty bees don't live up to their end of the bargain, either, and drill into the flower from the side so as to nab the nectar without doing the work of burrowing and thereby getting daubed with pollen. Very bad bee-havior.

In other snapdragon news: In Europe, the flower was believed to repel witchcraft and other trickery. The Victorians, those wacky purveyors of fun who created a whole language of flowers, labeled snapdragons as symbols of presumptuousness (Who would one send a bouquet of snapdragons to, in that case? To a presumptous suitor who sent you a dozen red roses?). And like many plants, it's found its way into dishes, though please take heed that I am not suggesting you do so; I've merely read that its seeds were used to make cooking oil and its petals and leaves to make tea. (One book I found online will even tell you how to whip up a dish of Pan-Fried Pork with Snapdragons.)

A snapdragon that manages to avoid being brewed, stir-fried, or pressed will no doubt be glad to hear it has not only dodged being known as the Giant Nose Plant but also that "snapdragon" is unlikely to yield to such other common names for the plant as toad's mouth, dog's mouth, lion's mouth, rabbit's lips, and lion's lips.

Oh, and incidentally, even though snapdragons may seed themselves freely in the garden and aren't native to the Pacific Northwest, they're not considered invasive--unlike the dalmatian toadflax that looks a lot like a yellow snapdragon and sometimes passes itself off with the alias "wild snapdragon," but is really a very distant cousin in a completely different genus that the snapdragons would prefer you not mention at all.


  1. My grandmother used to grow masses of snapdragons every summer in formal privet edged beds with standard roses marching up the middle. I'm not a huge fan of the snapdragon - I find the flowers a bit of a peculiar shape, but I do like their habit if being able to grow on a wall.

  2. Well, since writing this, I realize how fickle my garden attachments are. Now I'm in love with the hardy geraniums. They're twining through everything and are covered with stunning purple flowers. Shallow! I'm so shallow! The Shasta daisies are now starting to bloom, and they will probaby replace the geraniums in my heart... (The roses won't contest that. It's been so damp here this June, the roses grow big baseball-sized flowers--but they never open; instead they turn brown, and fall to the ground with a thud.)