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Antirrhinums (Snapdragons)
Choosing antirrhinums

From Garden Answers magazine

The Victorians loved antirrhinums. From the 1890s onwards they were listed in a wonderful variety and this enthusiasm continued well into the present century - in 1926 Suttons listed sixty seven varieties and even in 1939 Carters listed sixty four. And they came such subtle variations of colour that Victorian ladies had an enviable choice as they walked their cutting garden.

And there were so few of these dumpy little buns we see everywhere now: fast into flower on plants hardly larger than a fat muffin, they burst brightly into bloom and are over before they've occupied any appreciable space or developed any impressive character. Except, perhaps, that even on such tiny plants their quirky flowers are endearing.

These days we see the same flower forms as the Victorians grew: the traditional bunny-rabbit flower which opens when you pinch its sides; the penstemon-flowered, sometimes called open-throated, types and the doubles, penstemon-flowered types with extra petals cluttering the throat.

In the 1950s rust-resistant varieties were introduced and then vanished as they fell to the constantly mutating disease and rust remains the one drawback to growing these constantly fascinating and intriguing flowers. No antirrhinums are resistant.

Once they were grown in bold fat clumps like perennials, many reaching 3ft (90cm) in height. Now such tall varieties are hard to find but those in a medium height of about 15-18in (38-45cm) are short enough for modern small gardens yet tall enough retain a little elegance and to cut.

They make bold, self-supporting erect spikes wherever exclamation marks are required and emerging through foamier neighbours or set against the foliage of shrubs in a mixed border they're bold yet never overpowering.

'Night and Day', a Victorian crimson and white bicolour now rediscovered, or its new, penstemon-flowered (and far more expensive) counterpart 'La Bella Red and White', looks superb interplanted with the deep bronze foliage of purple perilla and the foam of 'White Cloud' larkspur.

On a smaller scale, choose carefully and you'll find varieties which will remain sufficiently open in habit to mingle intimately with low spreading neighbours. Try the aptly named 'Peaches and Cream' with the golden bowls of Camissonia 'Sunflakes' and both could go in front of the yellow-edged coleus 'Wizard Scarlet'.

Choosing varieties

Antirrhinums boast one of the widest ranges of colours in annuals. Blue may be missing but the shades range from white to scarlet, rusty bronze to primrose, deep purple to lavender - plus and increasing range of bicolours. And although varieties under 9in (23cm) proliferate in catalogues there are good selections in taller kinds.

Best dwarf series: 'Kim' is outstanding, six of its ten colours have received the RHS Award of Garden Merit. Slightly later into flower than other dwarf types, 'Kim' lasts for longer than the seven-colour 'Bells' which is earlier to start flowering.

Best dwarf single colours: Few are available. The sparkling 'Kim Orange Bicolour' is one of the AGM winners in orange with a yellow lip; 'Peaches and Cream' is altogether softer.

Best medium series: The nine-colour 'Sonnet' has the clearest colours, the similar 'Liberty' is the best of the rest. 'Coronette' is outdated.

Best medium single colours: The unique 'Black Prince' has crimson flowers and bronzed leaves; it's lovely in front of the silver foliage of Artemisia 'Powis Castle' or with the matching chocolate flower s of Cosmos atrosanguineus and Scabiosa 'Chile Black'.

Best penstemon-flowered type: 'La Bella' is an excellent new ten-colour, penstemon-flowered series reaching about 18in (45cm).

Best for cutting: Taller varieties for cutting or the back of the border can be hard to find, and then usually only in mixtures. 'Spring Giant' reaches 3-4ft (0.9-1.2m), the double flowered 'Madame Butterfly' is a little shorter. 'Appleblossom' in soft rose is a wonderful separate colour.

Best Victorian types: The crimson and white 'Night & Day' has real class. 'Brighton Rock', also known as 'Picturatum' and 'Candyman', with its striped flowers in many colours is a Victorian classic but always includes a proportion of unstriped plants. Sadly, the mixture of white-throated types listed by Suttons in 1889 has not yet re-appeared.

Best for baskets: 'Lampion' is a very expensive trailing mixture which is also excellent as mounded groundcover in beds and borders. 'Kim' is ideal for window boxes.

Best bicolour: 'La Bella Red and White' has a white throat and a crimson face and is outstanding; the Victorian 'Rembrandt', in orange and yellow, still stands out.

Best novelties: 'Powys Pride' is scarlet - but with leaves streaked in white. Love it or hate it.

Best for the future: Improved trailing types are on the way along with variegated varieties in other colours.

Raising and choosing plants

Mixtures like 'Bells' and 'Floral Carpet' are the most commonly seen antirrhinums in garden centres; 'Kim' is more scarce as it's less likely to be in flower at planting time. If mixtures are bought as they come into flower individual plants can be picked out for placing with the most appropriate neighbours.

You may find occasional taller types, especially Liberty, Sonnet and Coronette, but rarely in flower and rarely in separate colours although in the most upmarket garden centres they're sometimes offered individually in pots.

Look for plants which have branched from the base and in particular avoid taller varieties if the plants have little more than a single stem.

Seed is best sown in pots in March or April. Water the compost with Murphy Traditional Fungicide immediately before sowing as a precaution against damping off then sow thinly. Do not cover with compost or vermiculite but cover the pot with clingfilm and keep in a propagator in a light but not sunny place at about 15-20C. Sift a little compost over the seedlings as they germinate. Grow on cool, and harden off before planting. Antirrhinums are tougher than many bedding plants, like impatiens and begonias, so can be planted out a little earlier - say in early to mid May.


Again, Moles Seeds leads the way with 38 varieties, mostly separate colours. Of the more familiar catalogues Thompson & Morgan have the most varieties (19) including their own-bred 'Jamaica Mist' a lovely pastel penstemon-flowered blend; they also have the most separate colours. Mr Fothergill is close behind (16) and also has the most striking Victorian varieties.

DT Brown (11), Suttons (11), Dobies (10) all have plenty of mixtures but just one separate colour but Chiltern Seeds (12) has two useful tall separate colours. Plants of Distinction has the fewest listings (7) but six of these are separate colours including three full doubles in separate colours.

Seed Sources

'Appleblossom' - CS
'Bells Mixed' - B, MF, M, U
'Black Prince' - MF, T&M
'Brighton Rock' - MF
'Candyman' - S
'Coronette' - B, M (also separates), S
'Kim Orange Bicolour' - T&M
'Kim Mixed' - MF, U
'La Bella Mixed' - MF, M(also separates), U
'La Bella Red and White' - M, PoD
'Lampion Mixed' - B, M, PoD
'Liberty Mixed' - T&M
'Madame Butterfly' - B, CS, M, S, T&M, U
'Night & Day' - MF CS
'Peaches and Cream' - B, D, M, T&M
'Picturatum' - B
'Powys Pride'- PoD T&M
'Rembrandt' - MF
'Rust Resistant Mixed' - MF, M
'Sonnet Mixed' - D, M (also separates)
'Spring Giant' U

B - DT Brown & Co
CS -
Chiltern Seeds
D -
Dobies Seeds
M -
Moles Seeds
MF -
Mr Fothergill's Seeds
PoD -
Plants of Distinction
S -
Suttons Seeds
T&M -
Thompson & Morgan Seeds
U -
Unwins Seeds

First published in Garden Answers magazine, April 1999

Antirrhinum (Snapdragons) A-Z
©copyright 1999 Graham Rice. All Rights Reserved. All Images Digitally Watermarked.

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