As a child I used to eagerly await the gardening activities of a neighbour who, every year without fail, grew a magnificent show of what I learnt were dwarf antirrhinums beneath her equally glorious display of ‘masquerade’ floribunda roses.
I liked the roses but have to admit that it was the ‘antirrhinums’ that really stirred my soul, not for their intricate and fascinating blooms (that enduring fascination developed later), but for the fat and furry bumble bees which insistently pried the petals open before disappearing into the flowers’ throats.
Until then I had not seen carnivorous plants and hence thought that the flowers ate the bees. However, my older brother soon taught me otherwise although as he was perhaps seven years old at the time and not at all interested in flowers, really didn’t have a clue himself. He invented something to scare me and, I am delighted to say, completely failed!
He told me that “They hide inside those weird flowers, sneaking peeks at any humans who come near, so that when you are not looking they can fly out and sting you.” However, as I also quickly learnt, it was aimed at disguising his own mischief: one day, I caught him creeping up on an antirrhinum plant, jam jar in one hand, lid in the other, watching as he ‘squidged’ a bee-inhabited bloom into the jar, lightly screwed on the lid, rolled the jar and contents down a slope until the lid fell off and a very dizzy, completely disorientated bumble bee buzzed out in a series of dizzily acrobatic circles. Whilst he laughed himself silly, the poor tortured bee, re-orientated itself, made a ‘beeline’ for the nearest person (him) and stung him badly on his arm.
The easy way to grow antirrhinums, the most common garden flowers in the country
Later, from an aunt, I learnt a lovely antirrhinum fact: carefully snip off a single bloom, gently tweak it together at its base and it will open its mouth in a huge smile ... if there happens to be a bumble bee, happily feeding on nectar, inside the flower at the time, it will simply fly away as it knows that you do not mean to harm it. It also knows that if it stings you it will die as, unlike many other stinging insects, it has a ‘once only and perish’ stinging ability so, for obvious reasons, prefers not to use it.
Antirrhinums, otherwise known as ‘Snap dragons’ or, here in Pakistan, ‘Dog flowers’ are indigenous to countries around the Mediterranean. They were introduced — and became very popular — into this part of the world about a couple of hundred years ago and still remain one of the most common garden flowers around.
Available in a whole host of colours, bi-colours, streaked, spotted, frilled and in single or double-flower forms, dwarf varieties of antirrhinums can be used for rockery plantation, border edging or pot culture; in medium height for bedding and other general purposes; tall ones for back of the border statements or they can have creeping/cascading habits best suited for growing in places such as on top of walls or in hanging baskets and other such containers.
One of the easiest plants to grow from seed, they are relatively inexpensive and can, with care, often be encouraged to continue growing for as long as two to four or even five years if you are exceptionally lucky. Seedlings can also be purchased from garden centres in autumn, winter or early spring depending on which part of our climatically diverse country you happen to reside in. Generally speaking, the tiny seed (there are far more seeds per packet than you think!) should be sown just mixed into the surface of good quality, preferably organic, compost in seed trays/pots and then watered in, kept slightly moist, not wet or they may rot. Germination usually begins in 10-20 days depending on the time of year.
Seeds should be sown at a distance of one to two inches apart if you can manage it. Once the resultant seedlings reach the four to six-leaf stage they can be potted on at a distance of four to six inches apart depending on the variety or one plant per 4/5-inch pot. Then, when the plants are nicely established, they can be transplanted into their permanent growing position, at planting distances suitable for each variety (this should be indicated on seed packets), watered in. Other than general care including appropriate irrigation, they can be left to grow to maturity, bursting into colourful bloom, delighting all who see them.
Antirrhinums thrive in most soil types as long as it is well-drained and while they relish sunshine, they will perform in dappled shade.
Antirrhinums can be sown from August to the end of October in plains and coastal regions, including Karachi, for flowers throughout spring into the summer months or from the end of February to the end of May if you decide to try for autumn into winter blooms. The latter sowing period will only succeed if you are able to ‘nurse’ the seedlings through the often difficult summer months.
In upland areas of the country and in Quetta where winter temperatures are absolutely freezing, antirrhinums, unless they can be provided with greenhouse conditions, are best sown only in spring.
For lasting beauty, floriferous interest and happy bumble bees, antirrhinums are hard to beat.
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Published in Dawn, EOS, April 16th, 2017