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Snapdragons: the “Jaws” of the Flower World

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The open mouth is so huge you would swear you could see your reflection where the molars should be. The theme song for Jaws is on a loop in your brain. Small children are running through the yard, screaming and laughing. All the adults are reliving their childhood, remembering the joy of snapping jaws.

Flowers, and their fragrances, have the unique ability to transport us back in time. Back to a time when your grandma gently plucked the blossom from her snapdragon plant and demonstrated the finger movements to open the jaws. She may have told you to put your finger in the mouth and then let the jaw snap shut to a sparkle of giggles. While you were building memories with grandma, the flower you were holding has built a history of its own.

Snapdragon-loving grandmas are part of a large historical group that admires and seeks protection for the blooms. Snapdragons have grown in Europe since the rise of the Romans. Both the Romans and the Greeks believed the jaw-snapping blooms were protectors from evil and witchcraft. During medieval times when your entourage rode up to the castle gate, it would be guarded by a block planting of the snapping dragons. Women wore necklaces of the celebrity blooms since it was thought to make women alluring and fascinating. Babies had bouquets of snapdragons hanging on their cribs to ward off evil spirits. Even Thomas Jefferson wrote in the late 1700s of his snapdragons in his garden.

The botanical name Antirrhinum majus means “like a snout.” Squeezing the sides of the flower opens the jaws, which snap shut when released. Snapdragons are the perfect flower to provide protection, and—in a child’s mind—amusement. Some varieties like Royal Bride are historical and fragrant.

Looking at six packs of snapdragons at the nursery you will find many colors (except blue) and three sizes, dwarf, medium, and tall. Dwarf size is six to 15 inches tall and perfect for containers. The medium size, like Sonnet, ranges from 15 to 30 inches and is great for cut flowers. The tall varieties, like Rocket, grow up to four feet tall and need to be staked. The tallest plants are stunning at the back of beds, planted in blocks of color. Snaps are long blooming with the blossoms starting from the bottom, blooming upwards to the top.

When planting your snaps at your castle gate remember that soil preparation will make your plants appear as regal as the king’s court. Organic material mixed into the soil will help hold water. Mulch on the top will help stop weed production and competition for nutrients. Snaps may be planted in full sun or partial afternoon shade. Provide good air circulation and keep your overhead watering to a minimum to prevent disease. Plant in the early fall along with pansies to give snaps time to build roots and give you the first set of blooms before winter. Depending on the winter, the plants may stall but bloom early with the warming of spring.

Snapdragons can live several years, depending on conditions. Provide the snapping jaws with moisture, good growing conditions, space, and the helping hand of Mother Nature. In turn those little snapdragons will provide you with beauty, jaw-snapping protection, and memories.

Julie Silva is a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener of Tuolumne County who loves the history of flowers.

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