In the world of ornamental flowers, one plant stands out with its unique characteristics and captivating appeal - Four O’Clocks, botanically known as Mirabilis jalapa. Aptly named for the tendency for blossoms to open in the late afternoon, these charming flowers have been cherished for centuries for their beauty, fragrance and toughness.
A Rich History: From Aztecs to Cottage Gardens
The history of Four O’Clocks is as fascinating as the plant itself. The Aztecs were among the first to cultivate this wonder, using it for both medicinal and ornamental purposes, it's origin giving rise to one alternative name, Marvel of Peru. The root was valued for its medicinal properties, serving as an aphrodisiac and hallucinogen, the leaves for wound healing, and the flowers as a source of red food colouring.
In the 16th century, explorers brought Four O'Clocks to Europe, where it quickly gained popularity for its ornamental value. Due to its evening-opening flowers and delightful fragrance, it was given the French name Belle de Nuit (Beauty of the Night).
Mirabilis was a popular ornamental plant in the 1800s in southeastern Australia, fitting easily into cottage gardens and gaining a reputation for thriving in our hot summers. However, its rapid spread and easy cultivation earned it criticism, with an 1883 article in the Adelaide Advertiser calling the plant 'too vulgar to be tolerated in a genteel garden’.
Enchanting Features and Endearing Appeal
Four O’Clocks is a frost-sensitive perennial, typically grown as an annual in colder climates. It boasts multi-branched succulent stems, similar to impatiens, and pointed, mid-green leaves. The real show stoppers, though, are the fragrant, funnel-shaped flowers that bloom in the late afternoons and evenings from summer to autumn. This makes Four O'Clocks particularly suitable for growing along pathways and in containers placed near doorways or windows where the flowers’ night-time colour and scent can be enjoyed.
What makes the flowers even more captivating is their unusual colouring: different coloured flowers can grow simultaneously on the same plant, and individual flowers are often marked with stripes, spots or marbling. Of the modern varieties available, the ‘Marbles’ series features bicoloured flowers with striped and marbled patterns in pink, yellow or orange. ‘Angel Trumpets’ (M. longiflora) has elongated white flowers and an orange-blossom scent.
The appeal of Four O'Clocks lies not only in its mesmerising beauty but also in its easy-to-grow nature and minimal maintenance requirements. This old-fashioned garden favourite is tough as boots, thriving with little care, though the best flowers will be produced in well-watered and dead-headed plants.
Growing Four O’Clocks: Tips and Tricks
For those eager to cultivate their own Four O'Clocks, growing them from seed is a rewarding option. Sow the seeds in spring in cool and temperate climates or from March to September in warmer regions. Some gardeners soak the seeds overnight for faster germination. Planted 2cm deep, the seeds will germinate in 7 to 14 days at a temperature of 20-22°C.
Whether you decide to plant the seeds directly or raise seedlings first, be sure to wait until after the last frost to transplant them (don’t plant them out before your tomatoes!). Once the plants are established, they are relatively low-maintenance, but pinching the stems when they are young can result in denser growth. Deadheading the flowers is also essential, as they are not self-shedding. Deadheading will give a tidy appearance and encourage a continuous display of blooms. Plants will thrive in full sun or part shade; though leaves may wilt during the day they will revive once temperatures cool off at night.
Finally, in some areas Four O’Clocks have a reputation for ‘local weediness’ as shoots can sprout from the large and persistent tap root. Plants will self-seed readily too, though the large seed generally drops under or close to the parent plant. While their spread is generally very local, container growing or a degree of vigilance in removing unwanted seedlings and suckers is advisable.
Four O'Clocks is a truly remarkable and charming addition to any garden. With its unusually patterned flowers, captivating fragrance and ease of cultivation, it deserves to be grown more widely. Consider adding Four O’Clocks to your garden to experience fragrance and beauty from dusk 'til dawn.