Snapdragons of Autumn Twilight

At Christmas I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled mirth;
But like of each thing that in season grows.
Love’s Labours Lost

Cerise snapdragon heads (Antirrhinum majus) nod gently each morning as I pass the garden at the top of Benslow Hill. The flowers are doubly surprising – out of season and out of time. This snapdragon has persisted well into November, whilst all around it leaves drift or hang with marcescent tenacity on the low beech hedge behind the fence. Along with a couple of renegade scilla and bluebells, it is a survivor of an earlier garden, carefully tended by an elderly lady for the eleven years I walked the path and probably for many years before. The small front garden had a central circular depression in which her chaotic, life-affirming collection of spring bulbs and summer blooms, like a miniature amphitheatre, charmed me anew each year.

When the plot changed hands three years ago, the garden was excavated to make way for a new house. In its place appeared the mandatory paving, drive and hedge, but around the peripheries, echoes of the former garden remained. For a while, I felt wistful that the eclectic cottage planting was gone, that this once cherished space existed now only as garden in memory. Then I mentioned it to a friend and she remembered it too; she’d also felt the joy of the gardener in the exuberant planting and even now, like me, sees the old patterns beneath the new when she passes the garden. It pleases me to think of the collective nature of this recollection and I wonder how many more share these local memories and see this garden as a botanical palimpsest through which different layers of plants and memories can be unearthed.

The snapdragon itself possesses a collective past which exists in shared childhood memories. I remember the intensity of colour and texture when I made the hinged mouths yawn, the sudden transformation to mythic beast. The sugar-candy flowers never wore their colour as easily as the low mats of Mesembryanthemum, but their tactile heads drew me in – to squeeze, peer and dream. Now I grow tall red and white snapdragons: Antirrhinum majus ‘Royal Bride’ and ‘Crimson Velvet’. They don’t fit with the more naturalistic, largely compound flowers in the rest of the garden, but they’re comfortable companions, connecting my past with my children’s present as they pinch and wonder, much as I did. My plants also self-seeded this year – the resulting seedlings didn’t flower until late, but they persisted. Generally Antirrhinum majus (a short-lived tender perennial) is grown as an annual or biennial, but more recently it’s been surviving the milder winters in local gardens and now seems more able to spread by seed too.

It is, perhaps, apt that this Janus-headed flower spike simultaneously faces the past – our childhoods and the memory of landscape, whilst also looking towards the future – a plant which no longer needs the attentive gardener to raise it from seed or buy it as a bedding plug in milder areas of the UK. The snapdragon now fills a perennial niche in my local area and though its post-aestival blooms cheer the eye on a dank November morning, the fact that they owe their success to our warming climate makes their unseasonable flowering a bitter-sweet pleasure.

‘Crimson Velvet’ and ‘Royal Bride’

Thanks to all the gardeners who have contributed their tales of plants from the past and layers of history beneath their own gardens on the Blog, Facebook and Twitter.

I’ve also been receiving reports of snapdragons still in flower all over the country, some are now on their second flush – and overwintering during the past two to five years as far north as Aberdeenshire and the Isle of Skye. 

There are also plants still flowering in Edinburgh, Staffordshire, Derby, East Yorkshire, North Wales, Lincolnshire, Midlothian, Hartlepool, Worcestershire, Manchester, Cornwall, the Midlands and 500ft up on an exposed hilltop wall in South Yorkshire! Also reports of snapdragons blooming in Portugal and in the US in Portland, overwintering in NE Pennsylvania and in North Carolina they are winter flowers, put in during autumn as the summer weather is too hot for them. It’s been a fascinating insight into snapdragon growing around the world – thanks!

20 thoughts on “Snapdragons of Autumn Twilight

    • dogwooddays says:

      Thank you – glad you enjoyed the piece. They are such interesting plants, especially for kids. Even as an adult I can’t resist a quick squeeze to feel how the pressure suddenly catches and opens the gape, revealing the dragon’s gorge inside.

  1. Alan Garner says:

    I, too, remember the old garden. I used to enjoy looking at it as I walked into town. Despite the rather “down at heel” look of the old bungalow and the unkempt nature of the garden, there always seemed to be something of interest to see. It’s good to know that a few remnants are maintaining a tenacious grip on the plot.

  2. Christine Wilson says:

    Really enjoy this blog as its so informative with beautiful photographs. I always feel Nic’s great love for the land and all it produces in her tender care. I always look forward to the next installment and what she has been up to.

    • dogwooddays says:

      Thanks very much Christine – really glad you’re enjoying the blog. I think the thing I enjoy most about writing it is being able to communicate my love for nature with others – there’s always so much to share and learn ☺

    • dogwooddays says:

      Hi Jane, thanks for your comment and the link to your blog post, which I really enjoyed reading. Fascinating to see the old way of life in the plants left as its legacy. I also loved seeing the old buildings and their relationships with the flora – I wish you luck with your dream garden and I will be following your blog to hear more about the area and the garden’s progress. Warmest wishes, Nic

  3. Chris Mousseau says:

    Love your shared memory garden. I experienced something similar when a contractor dumped a load of dirt in the front field – he was excavating for a new foundation down the road and we thought the extra fill would be needed when our house was built. Turns out the fill was not needed so the dirt – or ‘mound’ as I call it – remained. Two years after dumping, out from the depths appeared heirloom Hosta, Iris and Peony! Memories from a century old garden, transplanted yet still alive.

    • dogwooddays says:

      Hi Chris – what a lovely way to experience past treasures with heirloom seeds transported in the soil. All topsoil should come with a little historical plant magic! Are the plants thriving still and have you been able to put any names to them?

  4. Clifton Hughes says:

    I love the idea of a garden being a palimpsest. Franklin Gardens was built on the site of a farm, and inconveniently, when I dug holes to plant some apple trees, what should I find but the corrugated iron of the old pig pens, which had simply been pushed over and buried under some topsoil. More happily, my friend has a photo that shows the old farmhouse, and I can see in it the trees that now surround my garden in a quite different orientation.

    • dogwooddays says:

      That’s lovely that you have images of what the farmhouse used to look like – must add another dimension to living there when you can see the Landscape in both the past and present. I wish I knew more about what my garden used to look like – I think it was originally railway land over 20 years ago …

  5. Susan Beard says:

    I live with a train euthusiast and he tells me that Station Masters all over the UK once had Snapdragons has their favourite flower – due to their long reliable and resilient quantities. We still have a few platforms that can give a smile to the traveller.

  6. Diane Ketcher says:

    hello Nic. Lovely piece of writing!. I have white snapdragons in my front garden, which i didn’t plant and they are still in flower–or maybe repeat flowering. The marigolds are still at it too.
    My cousin in Essex has a magnificent delphinium in flower–she posted several times on facebook recently.x

    • dogwooddays says:

      Hi Diane, interesting that you have self seeded plants, presumably seeds blown in from another garden. I’ve heard this week from lots of others who have repeat flowerers too. Snapdragons really are hard working plants!! 😊

  7. Jessica Foley (@ModernMomsLife) says:

    My daughters love snapdragons too. We try to plant a few every year. This year they were very hardy until we got our first serious frost. We are in Canada, and I have had a few grow from seed on their own, but it’s not consistent. I’m curious to see if we get any coming up this spring!

    • dogwooddays says:

      Hi Jess, interesting that they’re growing from seed, even in Canada! Hope they do return in the spring – I guess that self-seeders start pretty late with you, impressive that they have time to flower before the first frosts! Have a great week 😊

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