This time of year, the four o’clock is blooming and cheering up gardens all through our diocese. These marvelous flowers are considered old-fashioned and are sometimes overlooked as plantings but don’t count them out. They are definitely worthy of a spot in the garden.
The common name “four o’clock” was given to Mirabilis jalapa because the flowers do not open until 4 p.m. sharp (give or take an hour or so and even earlier on rainy or cloudy days). It is native to tropical South America in the Andes where it is sometimes called Marvel of Peru. Discovered by Europeans in 1540, the root was used by indigenous peoples for medicinal purposes, while the flowers produce an edible red dye for coloring food.
Flowers are bright shades of white, yellow, pink, orange, fuchsia, and red. Flowers of different colors can be found on the same plant — either simultaneously or at different times. There are varieties that are bicolored, speckled, marbled or variegated. They may have a strong, sweet-smelling fragrance when open (some varieties have no noticeable scent). The colorful, trumpet-shaped portion of the flower is the pigmented calyx or partially fused sepals; the flowers actually have no petals. Each flower is about two inches long and abruptly flares out into a trumpet shape that is approximately an inch across at the end with five lobes.
The shrub-like, erect and spreading, multi-branched plants grow 2-3 feet tall and wide. The fragile stems break easily and flop over if not supported. They are bright green but may have a yellow or pink hue. The opposite, ovate, bright green leaves are up to 4 inches long with a pointed end. They can also be triangular to egg-shaped, with smooth (non-toothed) edges. The plants produce elongated, dark-colored, swollen tuberous taproots that can be a foot or more long and have been found in warmer climates to weigh up to 40 pounds!
Before planting the showy four-o’clock, here are some facts to keep in mind. It thrives in full sun and in morning sun with afternoon shade. It prefers fertile soil but will perform in poor soil that is dry and drains well. Once established, the four-o’clock becomes a large, shrub-like plant and can quickly smother smaller plants that have been planted nearby. The four-o’clock’s mass of foliage will die back to the ground in the fall. It emerges late the following spring only after the soil temperature warms, so be careful not to forget where it is and plant another plant on top of it. Four-o’clocks are tender perennials hardy in Zones 7-10, so for us Coloradoans they are generally grown as an annual. Four o’clock re-seeds with vigor; each spring dig up any unwanted plants. A little water during dry periods keeps the plant looking fresh, though it is very drought tolerant. They bloom mid-summer through fall.
The four o’clock is rarely found at our local garden centers. Seeds are available online or you might want to ask a neighbor or an older gardener-friend to share their seeds. As these are tender plants, put transplants outside after all risk of frost, about the same time as tomatoes. Provide moderate moisture and fertilize periodically for the best results. They have few pests and are not usually browsed by deer. Tubers can be dug in the fall to store indoors and plant again in spring after the last frost. Treat the tubers like dahlias by digging them before the first freeze, shaking off the soil and storing them in dry, cool but frost-free conditions.
Don’t forget to consider placing the four o’clock close to the porch, front door, patio or deck so family, friends and the Amazon delivery person can enjoy its captivating fragrance.
(Kerry Peetz is a master gardener and a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Colorado Springs.)