Snapdragons and Other Colorful Figworts

snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus)

snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus)

Of all the families of plants that bloom in early spring, none can match the figworts.

Figworts include snapdragon, nemesia, diascia, linaria, veronica, galvezia, mimulus and penstemon. To understand what connection they could possibly have to figs, or why they are called figworts, you will simply have to keep reading.

I never met a person who did not like snapdragons, or the flowers of snapdragons at any rate. Children will appreciate your making finger puppets out of them. Pinch the funnel-shaped bottom of a snapdragon flower between thumb and forefinger, let go, and pinch again. Lo and behold! It’s the snapping jaws of a dragon!

Snapdragon plants can be large, medium or dwarf-sized. They flower best during fall, late winter and early spring, in mostly pastel colors such as sulfur yellow, mauve, magenta and pale pink, although ribald red and intoxicating burgundy hues are also encountered.

Like most figwort species, they stop blooming in cold weather and do not accept heat all that well. Snapdragons are famous for developing rust, a nasty fungal disease that quickly spreads from one flower to the next. Rust-resistant snapdragons are, at long last, being developed.

Nemesia, diascia and linaria are wispier than snapdragons and are best appreciated planted in clumps. All three types have both annual and perennial species. Unlike snapdragons, which hold their own in drive-by landscapes, these three types – all of which are readily available at the nursery this time of year – have small flowers.

Veronica is a type of figwort that encompasses more than a dozen garden varieties and hybrids. Inflorescences are blue or white spires and may reach 2 feet in height. Tall veronicas create the English garden look all by themselves but will have that effect enhanced with companions such as delphinium, foxglove and hollyhock.

There are three California native figworts – galvezia, mimulus, and penstemon – that bloom in late winter and spring. Galvezia, the island bush snapdragon, is a perennial with red flowers that bloom mostly in spring but may be seen at any time. In our hot valleys, it would suffer without a touch of shade.

Mimulus, or monkey flower, will soon be blooming all over the hills and canyons around us in yellow, buff orange and orange-red. However, there are also wonderful mimulus hybrids now available at the nursery that come in a much greater variety of colors. The appellation ‘monkey flower’ is given on account of the smiling monkey, which some people see when they look at mimulus blooms.

Penstemon is the darling of the spring flower garden for those who insist on growing only California natives. The color spectrum of penstemon includes every shade of pink, red, purple and blue with selected species blooming in yellow and red-orange as well. Penstemons demand well-drained soil but, if you can provide it, they will reward you by self-sowing and filling your beds with flowers for many, many springs to come.

Why are they called figworts?  Wort is a suffix meaning root and is used for plant groups that have culinary or medicinal properties.  Fig is an old English word for piles or hemorrhoids and refers to the curative property of celandine, the classic figwort, in treating this condition.

TIP OF THE WEEK: Robert Blessing, coordinator of the Parkman Community Gardens in Woodland Hills, informs me that garden plots are currently available on the corner of De Soto Avenue and Burbank Boulevard for a minimum of $15 per year. You can learn about other community gardens, of which there are seven in the Valley, by calling the Common Ground program at (323) 838-4539.

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