Four O’Clocks

A flower that doesn’t open until late in the day might seem a little pointless, but the four o’clock (Mirablilis jalapa) is a nice addition to your flowerbeds.  When the flowers open in late afternoon you will notice a lovely fragrance, and the little flowers are worth the wait!  They originate from South America but grow well nearly everywhere.  They are perennial in warmer climates (7 and higher) and also reseed freely.

When I was a kid my mother grew four o’clocks in her east facing flowerbeds.  (Actually, she still does.)  They were all one color, kind of a fuschia purple, and the blooms closed during the day.  The bushes got huge over the course of the summer and would crowd out other plants in the process.  So I wasn’t really a fan of this particular plant.

Four o'clocks
The original color of our four o’clocks

Imagine my joy when after moving to this house I discovered the very same four o’clocks, same boring color and everything, all over the flowerbeds!  Squee.

Landscaping was not a priority for the first several years after we moved here, with small kids, homeschooling, and interior remodeling.  So I let the boring flowers go crazy.  They were flowers at least, and they were pretty tough (benign neglect, right?).

Finally, we got roses for the main bed, and I started taking a little more care with our landscape.  At this point, I was pulling hundreds of little four o’clock seedlings as they sprouted because this is a very floriferous plant, and each flower makes a black seed that looks like a tiny grenade.

Four o'clock seeds
Four o’clock seeds

I left some in the north end because it’s pretty shady and I hadn’t planned anything for that area yet.  These flowers do attract sphinx moths, hummingbirds, and butterflies, so that’s kind of cool, and I planned to keep a few plants even though I wasn’t a huge fan of the boring flowers.  But about four years ago something interesting happened…

Four o'clock yellow bloom
Four o’clock with yellow bloom!

One of the plants had some yellow flowers on the same plant with the fuschia flowers.  That was really neat!  The next year, more of the flowers were yellow or streaked.  This kept increasing, until last summer I had several different colors of four o’clocks.  I saved some seeds to give to friends; who knows what they will produce?

After some research, I found that this is not at all unusual with Mirabilis; the thing I don’t understand is why the different colors took so long to show.  Perhaps one of those nice moths brought pollen from different colored flowers and got us some genetic variation going.  Regardless, I no longer dislike the four o’clock flowers.  I will still judiciously pull hundreds of seedlings as they show up where I don’t want them, but I will be sure to leave several plants.  I can’t wait to see what they look like this summer!

If you decide to plant some four o’clocks, now is the time.  After danger of frost, plant the seeds in the garden and water regularly.  They prefer full sun (6 hours minimum).  I don’t fertilize, but some garden sites do recommend a little fertilizer.  They can get up to four feet high and wide–mine usually top out around three feet, but I don’t water as much as they would probably like and we have a lot of wind.   You can trim back if they get too enthusiastic.  They start blooming mid-summer and will go until frost.  The seeds are considered poisonous.  Most pests don’t seem to bother them, but in seriously bad summers, we have had grasshoppers eat some of the flowers and leaves.   Give them a try!