snapdragon



snapdragon defined in 1912 year

snapdragon - SNAPDRAGON (Antirrhinum majus);
snapdragon - A chamber whose door is most jealously kept closed, a treasure-house to the one who has the key to unlock it, a prison to intruders where the gate shuts irrevocably with a snap upon its captives, the flower of the Snapdragon is bound to arrest our attention. The plant is said to be not actually a native, and, indeed, we usually find it on walls and cliffs and in chalk pits and such like places, where it is likely to be an escape from some past civilisation. Still, it is self-sown so plentifully nowadays that we are bound to class it among our wild flowers, even though it originally came to us from the coasts of the Mediterranean.

Apart from its flowers it is in no wise remarkable; a herb a foot or two high, carrying simple, narrow leaves upon a stem inclined to be shrubby at the base, it is the flowers and the flowers alone that have created an atmosphere of interest about it. Vivid in colouring, as our photograph well shows, grotesque almost to uncouthness, they have caused it to be associated with the supernatural and the uncanny, and it was one of the plants the witches employed. But, curiously enough, the association has always been in an antagonistic sense; it broke up the evil spells of others, it turned curses harmlessly aside; though the witches used it, it was rather as a defence against the wiles of other sorcerers than aggressively; in fact, it was often hung up in doorways and entries to ward off witchcraft. If a man carried it about him he became gracious in the sight of his fellows. With all this attributed power of beneficence it is, therefore, rather surprising to be told by Parkinson that it "is seldome or never used in Physicke by any in our dayes," and, indeed, in the old herbals it is conspicuous by its absence.

The flowers are arranged in spikes, the lowest buds opening first and the blossoming proceeding upwards. The calyx of each flower is quite insignificant in comparison with the corolla, though it proves later to have far more lasting qualities. The corolla is a big round tube ending in two bold lips, the upper one overarching, the lower one receding; in botanical parlance it is a " personate," or mask-like corolla, but, unlike most two-lipped corollas, the lips are tightly pressed together as in a shut mouth.

Its striking form has caused the plant to be given many homely names. Snapdragon is chief favourite, but "Dragon's Head," "Dragon's Mouth," "Bear's Mouth," "Tiger's Mouth," are all well known and particularly appropriate from the trick the flower has, so familiar to every child, of opening wide its lips and displaying a lurid mouth and throat when squeezed at the sides with finger and thumb. " Bulldogs " and " Dog's Mouth" are names in use in some districts, while to see the likeness that inspires the names "Rabbits," "Bunny Mouth," and "Bunny Rabbit," one should turn the flower upside down, when the inverted lower lip makes quite a good "bunny," ears and all.

Now the mouth is kept firmly closed by the tissues just at the junction of the lips acting as a kind of spring; moreover, the closing is made particularly complete by the lower lip having a ridge running round it which fits into a hollow on the lip above. Hence it follows that the centre of the flower is a closed cavity - an extremely rare thing in an insect-fertilised flower, since it naturally tends to preclude any possibility of visitors. And, indeed, that is largely the Snapdragon's aim. It desires to eliminate all visitors but one, and to that one alone does it open its doors with a welcome. And that visitor is the great hairy wild bee, the humble-bee; and, in fact, as Lord Avebury pointed out, the Snapdragon flower " is a strong box of which the humble-bee only holds the key." No wonder the Snapdragon is built on bold, uncouth lines when adapting itself to visitors whom Maeterlinck describes as " enormous and covered, like primitive man, with a formless fur which rings of copper and cinnabar encircle. They are still half barbarous; they ravish the calices, destroying them if they resist, and push through the satin veils of the corollas like a cave-bear that might have forced its way into the silken, pearl-bestrewn tent of a Byzantine princess."

Watch a humble-bee approaching. With much noise it hovers over the flower, then suddenly alights on two knobs that are conveniently placed for the' purpose on the lower lip. The lip swings down under its weight and the mouth is open. The bee half clumsily pushes in, finding a good foothold among the thickly set hairs that carpet the surface of the lower lip. It dives down towards the honey, which is plentiful and stored away in a sac enclosing the ovary, its proboscis being guided there by two parallel lines of hairs, like railway lines, running towards it. Although well in the flower its great body prevents the lips from quite closing behind it, and while it sips the honey its back rubs on the roof as it almost fills the cavity. But up in the roof, their four filaments running along it like parallel beams, are the pollen boxes, and these open and pour out the yellow dust on to the back of the insect. Another column, the receptive column from the ovary, lies among the stamen filaments, and no doubt this gets dusted with pollen from the bee's back - either its own flower's pollen or that from a neighbour. Darwin experimented and found that, in the crimson-coloured Snapdragon, pollen from the stamens of its own flower could not fertilise it at all, but that in the white varieties it might possibly, though not very readily, do so. Anyway, no doubt cross-fertilisation is the usual procedure. Finally, the available honey being secured, the humble-bee scrambles out backwards and flies away to an adjacent flower.

One or two of the humble-bees, however, are thieves, and they simply pierce a hole low down in the corolla-wall and suck out the honey from the outside. The hive bee behaves in a similar dishonest way if she wants honey. Lord Avebury suggests that she dare not attempt to get it by the legitimate way, for she would surely be made prisoner if she did. If she is merely collecting pollen, however, she sits on the lower lip, and through the entrance reaches up to the pollen and takes it away. She does not need to enter for this purpose. But wood ants and a host of other small flies sometimes manage to creep through the lips in spite of a strongly set guard, only to find that once in they are trapped and imprisoned. There is no means of opening the flower from the inside.

Fertilisation completed, the flower slips off whole, like a garment, the bright corolla with the stamens on its roof. The ovary with the column still standing on it is left quite naked, except for the calyx, which remains faithfully clasping it. The column withers, the seed-case grows and dries, and the fruit forms, a hard little capsule of curious shape. It has been compared to a calf's head, and the plant has therefore been called "Calf's Snout," but Gerard remarks, "In mine opinion it is more like unto the bones of a sheep's head that hath lane long in the water, the flesh consumed clean away." And Gerard's simile is very apt if one reverses the capsule and looks at it when it is quite ripe and discharging its seeds. Large cavities, which might well be the cavities of eye orbits and nostrils, have then formed at its tip by the folding back of teeth. The seeds are small and almost black, and are covered with ridges and points. It is said that in some Continental countries an oil, little inferior to olive oil, is expressed from them.

This plant will be recognised as a member of the ScrophulariaceƦ family.

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