How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Snapdragons
The charming spires of dragon-lipped flowers of Antirrhinum have been beloved for centuries. Former organic farmer Logan Hailey has all the best tips and tricks for growing dazzling snapdragons with ease.
With their elegant spires of tubular flowers with puffed lips, snapdragons are an old-time garden classic. These long-blooming flowers grace us with rainbows of colors from spring through fall in mild climates. Whether you want to add magical charm to your garden or cut them for vases and arrangements, snapdragons are undeniably a showstopping focal point wherever they’re planted.
This old garden favorite has some unique growing needs, including cold stratification and special modifications for hot climates. Let’s dig into how to grow dazzling snapdragons and some flower farmer secrets for success.
Snapdragon ‘Antirrhinum majus’ Plant Overview
Plant Type Annual, Perennial in zones 7+
Plant Family Plantaginaceae
Plant Genus Antirrhinum
Plant Species majus
Hardiness Zone 7-10
Planting Season Spring or early fall
Plant Maintenance Moderate
Plant Height 1-3’
Fertility Needs Low
Companion Plants Marigolds, petunias, nasturtiums
Soil Type Well-drained loamy
Plant Spacing 6-12”
Watering Needs Moderate
Sun Exposure Full sun
Days to Maturity 80-100
Pests Aphids, mites, mealybugs
Diseases Rust, powdery mildew, damping off
History and Cultivation
These gorgeous flowers have been cultivated for centuries for their ornamental value and medicinal properties. In the Renaissance era, the showy flowers became popular ornamental plants. Children and gardeners became fascinated by the way the jaw of the flower “snaps” shut when gently squeezed.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, botanists became interested in the complex floral structure and set out to develop new varieties. We can see this diversity in hundreds of cultivars from seed companies today. They mostly fit into one of two flower types: the traditional “mouth-type” snapdragon or the open-face “butterfly” type. We’ll explore more fascinating seed cultivars below.
What is a Snapdragon?
Snapdragons, or Antirrhinum majus, are short-lived tender perennials that flower in cool weather. These gorgeous, colorful flowers are typically grown as annuals in the cool buffer seasons of spring and fall.
The common name comes from the dragon-shaped flowers that appear to have two closed lips raised on a terminal spike. The scientific name Antirrhinum comes from the Greek anti, meaning “like,” and rhis, meaning “nose,” a reference to the dragon-snout appearance of each flower.
Where Do Snapdragons Originate?
Snapdragons are a cool-weather annual flower native to the Mediterranean in southern Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle East. In the Renaissance era, snapdragons became increasingly popular in Europe and captured the attention of botanists and florists, who spread the vibrant blooms across the globe.
Their natural habitat includes rocky slopes, open fields, and sometimes disturbed roadsides. They love well-drained soils with mild sunny weather. The intriguing floral displays typically dwindle in hot summers above 80°F but return to their full glory in the cool weather of fall.
Snapdragons can be propagated from seeds, cuttings, or by division. Seed is the most common means of multiplying these plants. However, you can’t save seeds from many hybrids due to plant patents or cross-pollination, resulting in offspring that is not true-to-type. Fortunately, a vast range of gorgeous snapdragons are available from seed companies, including our own Botanical Interests.
Snapdragon seeds are remarkably tiny. While they can be directly sown in your garden, many gardeners prefer to start them indoors to get a jump start on the gardening season. Regardless of your chosen method, be very careful not to bury the seeds. Snapdragons require light to germinate.
Direct Seeding and Cold Exposure
You can direct sow snapdragons outside in early spring in cold climates or late summer and early fall in mild southern climates. Direct seeding naturally exposes the seeds to a cold stratification period. This means the seed is exposed to cold soil temperatures below 40°F; as the weather warms in the spring, the change in temperature triggers germination in the seed.
Cold exposure improves germination and mimics the plant’s natural winter dormancy cycle. However, most cut flower gardeners and farmers prefer to put these tiny seeds in the refrigerator rather than throwing them outside in the elements. Wind and heavy rains can easily displace the seeds and hinder your germination success.
In the depths of winter, chill snapdragon seeds for 3-5 weeks in your fridge to improve germination before sowing. Then, start seeds indoors 8-10 weeks before your expected last frost date. If you’d like to skip the refrigerator chilling, start seeds outdoors 8-10 weeks before your expected last frost date; the cooler outdoor temperatures will stratify the seeds on their own!
Fill cell trays or 3-inch pots with a well-drained soil blend and very shallowly surface-sow the teeny tiny seeds. Cover with an ultra-fine dust of soil or vermiculite. Light is required for snapdragon germination, so the soil should only be enough to hold the seeds in place without burying them.
Maintain consistent moisture via bottom watering or misting. You don’t want to pour lots of water over the top of the trays, as this can displace the seeds. At the same time, you don’t want the surface soil to completely dry, either — it must stay damp to the touch!
Place your seed trays in a bright, sunny window or greenhouse nursery. Seedlings usually take 7 to 14 days to germinate at room temperature, but some varieties can take up to 3-4 weeks. Again, cold stratification can speed up the process.
There is no need for heating mats or extremely hot environments, as these seeds are naturally adapted to cool weather. When they emerge, grow at a consistent 60-70°F for 3-4 weeks.
When the first sets of true leaves appear, transplant them to larger containers if desired. When the plants have at least 4-6 sets of leaves, many growers pinch them back to half their height. If the plant is 4 inches tall, you can pinch the center down to 2 inches.
Pinching delays flowering, but it encourages a bushier plant with more side branches. If you prefer one central floriferous stalk, don’t pinch. But if you want a dense floral show, pinch the seedlings and plant at a slightly wider spacing to allow for branching.
For the fastest results, snapdragons are often multiplied via cuttings. The best time to take cuttings is in early spring (if you have an established plant) or about six weeks before the first fall frost in milder climates.
For this method, you need a healthy mother plant of the desired variety. The cuttings will be genetically identical to the original plant. You can root them in water or moist soil, and both methods tend to have great results. This method works for hybrids that don’t produce true-to-type seeds, too!
To take snapdragon cuttings:
- Start with a healthy, robust plant that is not flowering.
- Locate a leaf node or the small bump where a leaf intersects with the stem.
- Use sharp, sanitized pruners to cut 4-6” lengths of stem just below the node.
- Remove the leaves from the lower half of each stem.
- Dip the end of each cutting in a rooting hormone.
- Place the stems in cell trays or pots filled with well-drained soil mix.
- Alternatively, submerge the lower half of the stems in water.
- Keep 2-3 sets of remaining leaves above the soil or water level.
- Place the cuttings in direct light until the roots develop.
Cuttings can take 2-3 weeks to form roots. Fresh new green shoots are a great indicator that the cutting has taken root. You can also gently tug it from the base and feel for a slight resistance. If the stem stays put, it probably is ready to up-pot to a larger container where it can grow until you transplant it outdoors.
To get the most “bang for your buck,” you can use your “pinched” tops from seedlings or established plants as new cuttings. This gives you a double whammy of benefits because the pinched plants will grow bushier, and the removed stems won’t go to waste because they can grow into new plants.
Division is a less common method of propagation snapdragons, but it’s still a reliable way to multiply your plants. The best time to divide a snapdragon patch is in late summer when the plant has stopped flowering. You can propagate a container-grown snapdragon any time it is not in bloom.
To divide a mature snapdragon:
- Gently dig up the entire plant in late summer.
- Use sanitized pruners, a knife, or your hands to separate the root mass into smaller parts.
- Ensure there is foliage attached to each section of roots.
- Plant each division in a 1-gallon pot or locate a different garden bed.
- Maintain consistent moisture and look for new growth within 2-4 weeks.
Dividing can help thin out an overcrowded snapdragon patch or expand your container flower collection. Just be sure there is healthy stem and leaf growth attached to each root section.
This cool-weather flower thrives in spring or fall and doesn’t enjoy temperatures over 80°F. Most gardeners plant snapdragons in the spring for an early summer bloom, but you can grow a second round in the fall for an autumnal display.
Warm climate gardeners (zones 7 and warmer) often plant exclusively in late fall to enjoy extra early spring flowers. They remain tender perennials in areas with mild winters.
How to Transplant
Transplanting these dragon-tongue flowers is very straightforward and similar to planting vegetable seedlings. The best time to transplant is in the early spring, right after the last frost. Some gardeners plant a few weeks before the last frost date and cover snapdragons with row cover.
Check that the seedlings are fully rooted in their cell trays and have several lush sets of true leaves. The plants should not have flower buds while in their pots. If they do, pinch them off.
Gently massage the pot to loosen the roots while you hold the plant at its base. Use your hands, a trowel, or a hori hori knife to prepare a planting hole about 1.5 times larger than the root ball. Place the seedling in the hole, ensuring that the soil level remains the same. Gently backfill and lightly press in place.
Be sure to transplant in the morning or evening because the midday sun can be too intense for young seedlings. Water thoroughly at the base and maintain consistently moist but not soggy soil.
Most snapdragon varieties are spaced 4-12” apart, depending on your preference for cut flowers and whether or not you pinched the plant.
For cut flowers: High-density planting (4” square for each plant) yields a single harvest of long single stems great for vases and bouquets. You can widen spacing to 9 x 9” to harvest stems over a prolonged period. These production-style planting methods often use floricultural netting expanded horizontally over the bed to support and help space out the plants.
For ornamental: If you are growing snapdragons as ornamental plants that will remain in your garden beds, I recommend planting at a wider 10-12” spacing and pinching the plants for maximum bushiness and floral growth. Research from Cornell Horticulture shows that if you pinch the main growing tip after six leaves have formed, it boosts stem yields by 30-50% as long as you choose wider spacing. However, this will delay your floral production by 2-3 weeks.
How to Grow
This easy-to-grow flower doesn’t require much more than well-drained, loamy soil, sunshine, and consistent moisture. If you have successfully grown tomatoes, pansies, petunias, or geraniums, you will have no problem with this snappy hooded flower.
Snapdragons prefer full sunshine but tolerate partial shade. At least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day is needed for optimal flowering. Choose a location with bright southern exposure and few shadows from trees, shrubs, or nearby structures.
Plants bloom less when exposed to prolonged shady conditions. But in hot climates, these cool-loving flowers enjoy some afternoon shade respite from the sun.
The moisture preferences of snapdragons are similar to many ornamental annual flowers: moist but never soggy. They are not drought-tolerant and need at least 1 inch of supplemental watering per week when there is no rain. Water at the base of the plant’s crown rather than overhead. Overhead irrigation with sprinklers can cause issues with fungal disease.
When your plants are established, let the top inch of soil dry before watering again. Always stick your finger several inches in the soil to check the moisture level before irrigating. If you cannot feel the dampness and your skin comes out clean, the soil is likely too dry. The fibrous roots are fairly shallow and cannot withstand drought.
A loamy, compost-rich flower bed is ideal for colorful, snappy blooms. This Mediterranean native does not tolerate waterlogged or heavy clay conditions. Always amend your beds with extra compost, vermiculite, perlite, or peat moss to improve drainage and organic matter. A neutral pH between 6.0 and 7.0 is ideal.
If growing in containers, choose the highest quality potting blend and avoid compacting it in the container. The soil does not need to be ultra-deep (a minimum of 8” will suffice), but it must allow water to pass through freely.
If you pour water on a potted snapdragon and it pools up on the surface, this is a sign that the soil needs to be amended. Water should flow easily through the soil profile and out of the bottom drainage hole.
Climate and Temperature
Unlike vibrant petunias or showy zinnias, snapdragons are cool-weather flowers. They prefer temperatures between 50° and 70°F. If the weather goes over 80°F, it won’t kill the plant, but it may cause flowers to die back. The plants often begin blooming again once the weather cools.
In southern climates, it’s best to grow snapdragons in the fall, winter, or early spring. In mild northern climates, you can enjoy their blooms throughout summer as long as they have plenty of moisture.
This is not a heavy-feeding plant, but it enjoys a balanced blend of rich compost and slow-release organic fertility. Be careful with nitrogen, as an excessive amount of nitrogen fertilizer can lead to an overgrowth of the spiraling leaves at the expense of flowers.
To enjoy the maximum flower display, choose a fertilizer with a balanced NPK. For example, Espoma Organic Garden Tone has an NPK analysis of 3-4-4, which is perfect for feeding snapdragons at the time of planting.
The only maintenance these flowers require is pinching and deadheading. Pinching is optional, but it encourages a bushier, more floriferous plant. If your seedlings appear leggy or lanky when they reach 4-6” tall, pinch them back to about half their size. Removal of the central growing tip (scientifically called the apical meristem) tells the plant to focus its growth on side branches, buds, and flowers.
Regular deadheading is also optional, but it promotes new growth and prolonged blooming. If you want as much color as possible in your beds, remove spent flowers once a week. All you need to do is cut the stem just above any new pair of leaves. The plant will take this as a queue to develop more new buds. If the plant becomes leggy during the flowering stage, you can optionally pinch (prune) again by cutting further down the stem.
Only the tallest varieties require staking in high-wind areas. The 3-foot-tall stalks can bend and break if grown in an unprotected part of the garden.
Snapdragons are typically classified in one of three groups based on the varietal height:
- Dwarf (8-12” tall)
- Intermediate (12-24” tall)
- Tall (24-36”)
Only dwarf plants should be grown in containers. Tall plants are great for the backs of annual flower beds where you want to create dimension behind lower-growing blooms. A blend of varieties can also create a nice stacked, textural display of varying colors and heights. My favorite cultivars include:
‘Night and Day’
This spicy-scented snapdragon is a bumble bee favorite. ‘Night and Day’ flowers are burgundy and vibrant red with white jaws. They make gorgeous cut flowers and an even more exciting autumnal display. When the fall weather cools, the dark red petals turn nearly black, and the leaves contrast with dark burgundy hues.
‘Night and Day’ actually blooms night and day for a prolonged display. The flowers are edible, making a pretty garnish on desserts, salads, and cocktails.
‘Tall Maximum Blend’
For stunning, erect flower stalks up to 3 feet tall, plant ‘Tall Maximum Blend’ in the middle or back of your flower bed. The 1” wide flowers appear in a rainbow of white, yellow, red, and pink. They start blooming on the lower stalks and move upward until the tip of the flower spike opens.
This blend is another bee magnet. The bees climb into the “mouths” of the striking flowers and pry them open to access the glorious nectar and pollen inside. If growing in a hot summer area, provide afternoon shade.
‘Magic Carpet Blend’
Perfect for hanging baskets and containers, this dwarf variety is low-growing and petite. It maxes out at about 8” tall and 4” wide. The spring-colored blend includes yellow, pink, orange, and white. They create a magic carpet of charming blooms alongside low-growing annuals like alyssums or petunias.
For a long-lasting bouquet or vase, ‘Orange Wonder’ is the perfect peachy orange and pink snapdragon. The lush green foliage perfectly contrasts the gorgeous pastel ombre colors that fade into deep pink at the bottom.
This tall variety grows up to 3 feet and provides long, elegant stems for the cut flower enthusiast. Like all snapdragons, bees and other pollinators love the dazzling 1.5” blooms full of nectar.
Pests and Diseases
Snapdragons are generally quite resilient, but sometimes they fall victim to sap-sucking pests and unsightly diseases. Fortunately, these issues are easy to prevent with adequate spacing and plant care. If they do get out of hand, most problems have a safe organic solution to keep your flower beds thriving without synthetic chemicals.
These small, soft-bodied insects may appear on your plants any time of year, causing the leaves to distort and curl. They tend to attack stressed plants, so keep your snapdragons well-watered and grow them in loamy, well-drained soil.
If an extreme outbreak occurs, a mixture of neem oil and water can help remove the aphids, or use a spray bottle with diluted insecticidal soap to spray down plants. Avoid spraying the flowers if possible. While neem oil and insecticidal soap are not considered risks to most pollinating insects, avoiding direct spray into the flowers prevents contaminated pollen that bees might carry back to their hive.
Spider mites are tiny arachnids that look like little brown or red dots on the underside of snapdragon leaves. They are especially common in container plants and prefer dry, warm air and stressed plants. They are super easy to kill with a blast of water, wiping down the leaves with diluted neem oil, or an application of insecticidal soap.
These oval sap-suckers cause similar damage to that of aphids. You’ll notice little white cottony bugs on the stems and leaves, sometimes with a sooty mold fungus or ants due to the sticky excretion they excrete.
They are mainly a problem in northern climate houseplants but may attack outdoor snapdragons in warm weather. In extreme infestations, the snapdragon leaves may turn yellow or disfigured, and the flowers will fall.
Get rid of them with insecticidal soap or neem oil, as described above. You can also use a cotton swab dipped in alcohol to force individual mealybugs to release from the plant if you only see one or two.
The most common disease in snapdragons is rust, which can be identified by the small orangish-red blisters that appear on the undersides of leaves. These sporangia release powdery spores that spread the disease farther around the plant, leading to widespread yellowing and eventual death.
Rust is a fungal infection that mainly takes hold in high humidity and dense spacing. After removing and disposing of infected leaves, apply an organic copper or sulfur-based fungicide. Prune your plants to improve air circulation.
To prevent rust, avoid overhead watering and space plants wider apart in humid climates. Some snapdragon cultivars are rust-resistant.
This white powdery substance attacks many plants in the garden, causing a pale, powdery coating over the leaves and widespread yellowing or foliage death. Powdery mildew thrives in damp, cool conditions, which often coincide with the prime season for snapdragons.
Prevention is key:
- Space plants farther apart
- Improve air circulation with pruning
- Avoid overhead watering
- Use drip irrigation or soaker hoses
You can apply neem oil or potassium bicarbonate to treat infected leaves and prevent further spread.
This fungal disease only affects snapdragons in the seedling stage. You’ll notice the baby plants suddenly wilt and collapse. They’ll appear girdled or rotten right at the soil line. Although you cannot save dampened-off seedlings, you can easily prevent this issue in the future:
- Always choose a well-drained and sterile potting mix.
- Avoid overwatering; too much water can cause fungal rot in the immature stems.
- Place seed trays in an area with a fan or breeze to ensure proper airflow.
- Avoid excessive crowding or overseeding. Thin your plants!
Snapdragons are primarily used as ornamental plants or for cut flowers in bouquets and arrangements. The flowers are edible but not as flavorful as rose petals or calendula. Their fun “mouths” are a kid favorite!
Frequently Asked Questions
Are snapdragons perennials or annuals?
Snapdragons are tender perennials that are usually grown as annuals. Their Mediterranean native habitat provides clues to their mild weather preferences. They prefer cooler temperatures but cannot handle extreme cold. They remain perennial in zones 7-11 but cease flowering during the hottest months.
Can snapdragons grow in containers?
Snapdragons thrive in containers if you choose a dwarf or trailing variety and a well-drained potting mix. The plants are fairly shallow-rooted and eagerly grow in an 8-inch or larger pot. Water the plants well and grow in full sun.
Larger snapdragon varieties can be container-grown as well, but require a larger container and much more space. In most cases, it’s best to stay with the smaller varieties and keep the larger ones for in-ground plantings.
Do snapdragons attract hummingbirds?
This dragon-shaped flower is not typically a hummingbird favorite because the bloom lips must be opened by force. Bumblebees and honeybees are more likely to pollinate these nectar-rich blooms by pushing their furry bodies through the uniquely shaped flowers. Snapdragons are best for bee gardens!
Snapdragons may have complex-looking flowers, but their needs are fairly simple. As long as you cold-stratify the seeds in the refrigerator, sow them indoors 8-10 weeks before your last frost date, and maintain continuous moisture after transplanting, these flowers will bloom eagerly all summer long. Don’t forget to pinch the young seedlings for bushy growth!