There are 30 to 40 species of snapdragons, the most common of which is Antirrhinum majus. The name comes from the Greek, antirrinon, meaning “nose-like.” The snapdragon has been a popular ornamental flower for centuries, and it has a rich history in folklore. Cooking oil can be made from its seeds, and the snapdragon plant also has medicinal uses. Indigenous species can be found in Europe, North America, and North Africa. The plant is of minor economic importance as an ornamental cultivar. Antirrhinum majus is native to southern Spain, from where it spread throughout the Roman Empire, and wild varieties can still be found growing freely in the ruins of ancient Greece and Rome. Native species in North America are not as showy and have not been cultivated for ornamental use.
The snapdragon was a well-known flower in the ancient world. The Greeks knew it by the common name kynokephelon, meaning “dog-headed.” The Romans called it leonis ora, or “lion’s mouth.” The Old French word for Snapdragon was muflier, or “snout”; the Italians called the flower bocca de leone, and the Germans Lowenmaul, which both mean “lion’s mouth.” In English, common names for Snapdragon include dragon’s snout, dog’s mouth, calf’s snout, and toad’s mouth. All of these names reflect the unique, muzzle-like shape of the snapdragon bloom. If one gently squeezes the sides of the flower together rhythmically, it will pop open and closed, like a snapping jaw. For this reason, only larger insects, such as the bumblebee, can pollinate snapdragons; smaller insects are not strong enough to separate the flower’s petals and reach its interior. Snapdragons are most commonly grown as an annual, but they are, in fact, perennial plants. Snapdragons are not particularly resistant to cold weather, but they can live through the winter, especially when properly seeded. Gardeners are advised to seed large swaths of soil in both the spring and fall if they want to grow these flowers as perennials. Biannual seeding helps replace plants that do not survive cold weather, and these plants are generally hardier when cultivated in larger groups.
Antirrhinum majus holds a significant place in European folklore. Snapdragons have been considered, since antiquity, to possess magical qualities. They have been said to protect against charms and enchantments. Both the first-century CE Greek physician Dioscorides and Roman encyclopedist Pliny advised wearing a bracelet of the flowers to stave off illness and protect against poisoning. During the Renaissance, snapdragons were believed to bring charisma, glory, honor, and social status; wearing them on one’s sleeve was believed to lead to favorable receptions at court and among one’s betters. Pliny 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.
In addition to serving as charms against witchcraft, snapdragons were said to provide special shelter to elves. A German folktale tells of a woman who is placed under magical enchantment by an elf. The elf kidnaps the woman and, as she follows him 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.
The snapdragon retains its importance among modern practitioners of magic and Wicca. Modern practitioners celebrate the snapdragon’s traditional protective powers against charms, curses, and magic. Any part of the plant, when worn on the body, is said to offer a charm against deception and lies. A seed of the plant, when hung around the neck, prevents bewitchment. Stepping on a snapdragon, or holding one of its blooms, is said to drive away evil influences. Modern Wic- cans place fresh snapdragons on their altars when casting protective charms, and may plant protective borders of snapdragons around their gardens or homes.
Snapdragons placed in front of a mirror are said to dispel negative energy and reflect curses back to the person who sent them.
While mostly valuable for their showy and fragrant blooms, snapdragons do possess some limited medicinal value. As early as the first century, Dioscorides recommended pounding the seeds in lily oil to make a restorative facial lotion. The leaves of the snapdragon have bitter and stimulant properties, and have 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 leaves and flowers of snapdragon can be made into an ointment for rashes and sunburns. Crushed flowers, mixed with almond oil and warmed, can be applied to the skin to treat sprains, strains, hemorrhoids, rashes, redness, and inflammation. This same concoction can provide relief for stiff muscles and aching backs. An infusion of the flowers and leaves can be gargled to treat sores and ulcers of the mouth. Snapdragon tea has been used as a remedy for sore throat. The leaves and flowers contain the soothing and softening agent mucilage as well as gallic acid, pectin, and resin. These components are believed responsible for the plant’s limited medicinal uses.
The oil of snapdragon leaves is edible and is said to be just as healthy as olive oil. It 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. The poor farmer did not have much, but he invited the stranger to share his last loaf of bread. The farmer apologized that he had no butter to share with the stranger, and the stranger replied that he could offer an alternative; he went outside and plucked the ripe flowers from several wild snapdragons. He removed their seeds and squeezed the seed oil onto the farmer’s bread. Afterward, the poor 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.
For the most part, snapdragons are considered an ornamental plant. They have long enjoyed popularity as such. Modern breeding of hybrid varieties, which began in the early 20th century, has made them more popular by removing the plant’s one ornamental defect, namely, that the blooms of unhybridized plants fall off after being pollinated. As early as 1629, English herbalist John Parkinson, in his Paradisi de Sole, wrote of the many colors 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. Despite its popularity, snapdragon was considered a “rustic” flower, not appropriate for planting among the more elegant flowers of the garden. Gardeners have been advised for centuries to seed snapdragons as background plants, among shrubs and on banks. Snapdragons are also highly recommended as a bedding plant, and can be used to bring liveliness to swaths of monotonous ground cover. Snapdragons grow well in most temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. The many varieties of snapdragon produce blooms in an astounding range of colors; they can be found in orange, scarlet, crimson, coral, amber, yellow, and white. The wide range of colors makes these flowers easy to match with others in the garden. Dwarf snapdragons may reach heights of about 10 inches, but larger varieties may grow as tall as three feet. The larger varieties especially make excellent cut flowers. They may be cultivated in beds or used as borders; they make attractive accent plants for ground cover beds and can bring late-season color to early-blooming gardens.
Snapdragons are not considered economically important in the modern world; their cultivation is restricted to greenhouses, where they are offered as annuals for flower gardening and landscaping. Though these plants can survive the winter to come back in the spring, they are nevertheless somewhat delicate, such that gardeners are advised to treat them as annuals, pulling them up at the end of the growing season, and replanting in the spring.
Snapdragons have been of some importance to science, which has used them as a model for molecular leaf development. Study 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 flowers, the snapdragon carries both pollen and egg cells within each bloom, meaning that it does not require the presence of other snapdragons for pollination. Self-pollinating flowers such as the snapdragon can be crossbred by removing the pollen-carrying structures from the blooms and then artificially pollinating these flowers from another plant.
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