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Each year the National Garden Bureau spotlights a flower and vegetable. For the flower, this is the Year of the Snapdragon.

As a young child I was fascinated by these plants with dragon jaws. To my mother's distress, I picked the snapdragons and would gently squeeze them to make the jaws open wide and snap shut. I must confess, I've never lost that fascination. I still enjoy showing this same trick to my children and, if no one is watching, spending a moment or two playing with the snapdragons myself.Snapdragons are native to the Mediterranean region. The earliest written record of snapdragons is by Dioscorides, a Greek physician and botanist who lived in the first century. He studied the medicinal properties of plants and wrote about them in "De Materia Medica." His comments were that "the herb being hanged about one preserveth a man from being bewitched and it make a man gracious in the sight of the people."

I don't recall needing to hang snapdragons around my neck to ward off spells, but they actually have a practical use far beyond their beauty. They have been grown for centuries in Russia for food. The seeds are harvested and crushed, releasing an oil similar to olive oil used in place of butter.

Snapdragons spread from the Mediterranean throughout Europe and North America. On May 28, 1767, Thomas Jefferson noted that "the snapdragons are blooming." During the 1950s, snapdragons were among the top five cut flowers in America. In the late 1950s two North American breeders began working on snapdragons to improve their performance in home gardens. Since that time many different snapdragons have been developed for home garden use.

Snapdragons are members of the figwort family, which means they are related to penstemons, toadflax and other wild-flowers in our area. Their scientific name, Antirrhinum majus, gives a clue to the English name. "Anti" in Greek mans like and "rhinos" means snout, so its derivation of a snout-like flower is easily recognized. The Chinese and Japanese characters for snapdragon mean goldfish flower, due to its resemblance to the goldfish head and jaws.

Snapdragons, originally limited to white and purple colors, are now available in every color except blue. They are generally classified by flower form or height. Three different flower forms are available: dragon jaws, butterfly and azalea. The traditional dragon jaws are most familiar. The butterfly type has two large petals on top and three smaller petals on the bottom, and azalea flower snapdragons have extra petals in the center of the bloom.

Dwarf snapdragons are usually less than 15 inches high. Medium types grow 15-30 inches high, while tall snapdragons grow 30-48 inches high. Snapdragons are widely adapted to most areas of the garden. They are weakly perennial but are best treated as an annual in our area, and when given a sunny location will bloom prolifically. Although they like full sun, they don't necessarily like extra heat, so protect them from hot south or west exposures.

Snapdragon plants are easily started from seed. They take a little longer to grow than many other annuals, so start them about 12 weeks before you plan to set them outdoors. Snapdragon seed needs light to germinate, so do not cover the seed but press it gently into the soil medium. Keep the soil moist by covering it with plastic or newspaper. Grow them until they are about 3 inches high, then set them outdoors. They are easily transplanted and usually start flowering soon after they are planted in the garden.

Snapdragons require adequate moisture but will rot quickly if they are overwatered in heavy clay soils. They are relatively free of most pests but are not good competitors. Weeds will destroy a snapdragon planting and should be meticulously removed when they first appear. Most snapdragons are susceptible to verticillium wilt, which causes a sudden wilting and dieback of the plant. They are also susceptible to rust. Rust causes prolific brown spots to appear on the undersides of the leaves. Fungicides can be used, but there is a much better and simpler way to control rust. Snapdragons will reseed themselves, but grow them as an annual crop every other year. Snapdragons rotated every other year will seldom have problems with rust or verticillium wilt.

About the only major insects that seem to attack snapdragons each year are aphids. They feed on the plant juices and occasionally transmit disease. Predatory insects and insecticidal soaps will help keep these pests under control, although it may be necessary to spray with an insecticide.

I plan to celebrate 1994 as the Year of the Snapdragon. Not only are the flowers attractive in the garden, they make excellent cut flowers. Although I can think of many reasons for growing snapdragons, my secret reason is to renew those pleasant childhood memories of sneaking out, squeezing the blossoms and having the dragon jaws open and shut. These delightful flowers have my vote as the funnest blossom in the garden.

- IF YOU WOULD LIKE to see some of the finest gardens in Northern California, my wife and I are providing horticulture expertise on an upcoming tour. For additional information, contact Dale Fuddes at 3381-A Honeycut Road, Salt Lake City, UT 84106, or call 486-0247.