Nuttall’s Snapdragon

Antirrhinum nuttallianum

close up of purple Nuttall's Snapdragon blossoms
Rios trailhead | May 2011

Nuttall’s snapdragon (Antirrhinum nuttallianum) is an annual or short-lived perennial of the coastal sage scrub and chaparral. The plant can be seen along many of the trails in the Reserve, sometimes vining through a larger bush, and sometimes standing on its own.

The blue-lavender flowers have the characteristic asymmetrical snapdragon shape. The delicately veined purple and white lower lip is an effective bee landing platform.

Like our scrub oak (and our woodpecker), the plant is named for Thomas Nuttall, a naturalist who explored California between 1835 and 1836.

Other Common Names:

violet snapdragon

Description 2,4,59

Nuttalls’ snapdragon is an herbaceous annual or short-lived perennial, often vine-like and seeking support from surrounding shrubs. Without support, it is an upright, rounded plant, usually less than 3 feet high; with support, it may reach the tops of shrubs considerably taller.

Leaves are triangular to heart-shaped, to 1 inch long by 3/4 inch wide (24×19 mm). Lower leaves are opposite, upper alternate. All or most parts of the plant are covered with fine hairs.

Flowers are less than 1/2 inch (1.3 cm) long and occur singly at leaf axils on ascending stems (pedicels) initially less than 1/3 inch (7.5 mm) in length, increasing to 1/2 inch (1.2 cm) as seed pods mature. A secondary branchlet may arise from a leaf axil. Flowers are bisexual and asymmetrical. Five petals are fused into a two-lipped flower with two narrow lobes above and three broader lobes below. Lower lobes form a conspicuous pouch that contains the reproductive organs. The top of the pouch is closed by the upper lip, and together they conceal and protect the interior of the flower. Petals are generally violet to purple with a purple-veined white patch on the lower lip. Vivid yellow hairs line the bottom of the flower throat and are barely visible externally. There are four stamens fused at the bases to the flower throat. There is one pistil with a slightly 2-lipped stigma. Peak bloom time is April- July.1

The fruit is a three-chambered capsule containing numerous small seeds. The capsule is conspicuously beaked. It opens through three surface pores which allow the seeds to shake out.

Purple flowers growing up stem

Solana Hills trail | March 2011

young blossoms of Nuttall's Snapdragons

Photo credit: Denise Stillinger | April 2007

bud of Nuttalls Snapdragon flower on stem

Rios trailhead | April 2014

Distribution 7

In California, Nuttall’s Snapdragon is limited to coastal southern California and Baja, below 4600 feet (1340 m). It is also reported from Arizona.89 It is usually found in the chaparral and coastal sage scrub.

In the Reserve, Nuttall’s Snapdragon is regularly found along the south-side trails, especially west of the freeway. It seems to prefer north-facing slopes and often grows beneath and through lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia). This year (2014) a single plant has come up beside the boardwalk at the Nature Center, so perhaps Nuttall’s Snapdragon will establish itself in this area as well.

Classification 2

Nuttall’s snapdragon is a dicot angiosperm in the plantain family, the Plantaginacea. For many years, snapdragons were considered members of the fiqwort family (Scrophulariaceae) but they were moved to the plantain family in 1998 on the basis of DNA sequencing.84,88 Many available references still present the earlier classification system.

The Plantaginaceae contains nearly 100 genera. Unfortunately for the field botanist, members are morphologically heterogeneous and are not recognized by a few obvious, universal characteristics.59 The family contains some well-known garden flowers such as snapdragons, foxgloves, and penstemons as well as plantains many of which are obnoxious weeds (not to be confused with the banana of the same name).

The genus Antirrhinum has recently been revised. Although the current Jepson2 retains Nuttall’s snapdragon in Antirrhinum, other references have moved many of the new world snapdragons into genus Sairocarpus,89 and it is expected that the next revision of Jepson will adopt this classification. One other species (climbing or twining snapdragon; Antirrhinum kellologgii) has been reported from the Reserve.48

There are two subspecies of Nuttall’s snapdragon. Most of our plants are subspecies nuttallianum,48 distinguished by pedicel length, by details of the small hairs on the stem and by the characteristics of the white markings on the lower flower lip.2,4 However, some images in our collection show very short pedicels suggestive of spp. subsessile.

Alternate Scientific Names:

Sairocarpus nuttallianus

Jepson eFlora Taxon Page
several Nuttall's Snap Dragons growing on trailside

Photo credit: Denise Stillinger | April 2007

side view of purple snapdragon blooms

Photo credit: Barbara Wallach | June 2011

close up of stem with small translucent hairs

Rios trailhead | April 2014

Ecology 86,87

The pollination ecology of the closely related garden snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus) has been well studied, and, with care, much of what we have learned may be applied to the Nuttall’s Snapdragon. Both have an asymmetrical blossom with an inflated lower lobe that serves as an insect landing pad. The upper lip is decorated with stripes which serve as landing-guides. For an insect to gain entrance to the flower tube, which contains the pollen and nectar, it must depress the landing pad, which requires a bee of a certain weight. The garden snapdragon is primarily pollinated by bumble bees. Our slightly smaller Nuttall’s Snapdragon is pollinated by small native bees.59 The guiding stripes of the Nuttall’s Snapdragon are centered on the lower lip and clearly set off by a conspicuous white spot on the landing platform. Once inside the flower tube, the bee contacts the anthers and the back is dusted with pollen to be distributed to other flowers.

cluster of purple Nuttall's Snapdragons

Rios trailhead | June 2010

close up of two purple Nuttall's snapdragons

Rios trailhead | April 2014

someone supporting single purple snapdragon on their thumb

Rios trailhead | April 2014

Human Uses  

The Kumeyaay called the plant “Pullaay” and made a tea for colds by boiling the flowers and adding a bit of oil.6

Purple snapdragon with visible veins

Rios trailhead | June 2010

purple blossoms of Nuttall's Snapdragon

Rios trailhead | May 2011

purple snapdragons surrounded by leafy greenery

Rios trailhead | June 2010

Interesting Facts  

In the Reserve we have Nuttall’s Snapdragon, Nuttall’s scrub oak, Nuttall’s lotus; our blue toadflax was recently renamed as Nuttallanthus texanus. We have Nuttall’s Woodpecker and one of the clams associated with Kumeyaay middens is Saxidomus nuttalli. Who was Nuttall who has not only plants but birds and mollusks named after him?

Thomas Nuttall was an English botanist and zoologist who spent more than 30 years living and working in America.41 Toward the end of a two year collecting trip to Hawaii and the west coast, Nuttall was ” strolling about San Diego beach, in a sailor’s pea jacket, with wide straw hat, and barefooted, with his trousers roiled [sic] up to his knees, picking up stones and shells” when he encountered Richard Henry Dana and strolled into the pages of Two Years Before the Mast,91 where he was known as “Old Curious”. Dana wrote he was “sort of an oldish man with white hair … spent all his time in the bush, and along the beach, picking up flowers and shells … and had dozens of boxes and barrels full of them.” Nuttall and his collection returned to Boston with Dana’s ship, The Pilgrim.

purple snapdragons growing against brown boardwalk

Nature Center | April 2014

three purple flowers in a row

Photo credit: Barbara Wallach | June 2011

purple Nuttall's snapdragons growing along stem

Rios trailhead | June 2010

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