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Four O’Clocks (Mirabilis jalapa): Flower of a Thousand Faces (part 1)


“The stalks toward the top are garnished with long hollow single floures, folded as it were into five parts before they be opened; but being fully blown, do resemble the floures of Tabaco, not ending in sharp corners, but blunt & round as the flours of Bindweed, and larger than the floures of Tabaco, glittering oft times with a fine purple or crimson colour, many times of an horse-flesh, sometimes yellow, sometimes pale, and somtime resembling an old red or yellow colour; sometime whitish, and most commonly two colours occupying half the floure, or intercoursing the whole floure with streaks or orderly streames, now yellow, now purple, divided through the whole, having sometime great, somtime little spots of a purple colour, sprinkled and scattered in a most variable order and brave mixture.” John Gerard, Gerard’s Herball, Woodward edition pg. 75-76

“…it is a pleasant plant to decke the gardens of the curious.” ibid, pg. 78

I have the kind of four o’clocks that are yellow-and-cream, in combinations of splashes, stripes, and dots.  Sometimes I get an almost totally yellow flower, and sometimes I get an almost-white one. A friend grows a yellow and red-purple version that looks like the last of Gerard’s descriptions of this variable plant.
The first four o’clock I  ever saw in the flesh was blooming in a fairly shady spot (an unusual thing for four o’clocks, I found out later), and had flowers in solid colors. But the same bush had fuchsia, white, and orange-yellow flowers on it.

For a few years, I tried growing four o’clocks from seed, having read the usual propaganda that they are easy from seed.

They may be, and I may be the only one who can’t grow them that way. Or perhaps my garden just wasn’t sunny enough. Or perhaps I put them in places where they didn’t get enough water. After a few years of this, I ordered tubers of four o’clock (yes, they are tuberous plants) from Brent and Becky’s.

Gerard preserved his roots by digging them up at first frost and storing them in a butter firkin filled with river sand, and putting them in a dry place until planting them out in March or April. Likely his winters were more severe than my own. We get frosts, even snow, but we very rarely have ground frozen solid. Myself, I just leave four o’clocks in the ground.  They obligingly return each late spring.

When I see the screwed-up buds about to unfurl, I breathe a sigh of relief.  It’s late enough in the evening to expect some coolness soon.


 Next post: more about four o’clocks


John Gerard, Gerard’s Herball: The Essence therof distilled by Marcus Woodward, from the Edition of Th. Johnson, 1636, Crescent Books, 1985

John Lust, The Herb Book,  Benedict Lust Publications/Bantam, 1974/1979

Steven R. Smith, Wylundt’s Book of Incense, Samuel Weiser, 1989

Reader’s Digest Illustrated Guide to Gardening in Canada, Reader’s Digest Association (Canada) Ltd., 1979

Sunset Western Garden Book, Lane Magazine and Book Company, 1967, 1973

Louise Beebe Wilder, The Fragrant Garden, MacMillan, 1932; Dover reprint 1974

David Squire (with Jane Newdick), The Scented Garden, Rodale, 1989

{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Nancy Bond October 5, 2008, 3:18 pm

    A wonderful flower! I look forward to the next installment!

  • joco October 6, 2008, 3:23 am


    ‘the tendre croppes and the floures soote’

    how far away they seem now.

  • Pomona Belvedere October 6, 2008, 11:30 am

    It is a wonderful flower, I’m very happy I persisted until I had it in m garden. Very trouble-free once I got it there, and fun to see which variations of colors unfurl each evening.

    Hm joco, I expect your climate is cooler than mine; we had the first fire of the season (along with a welcome rain) a couple of days ago, but it’s heating up again. Which is good, as I want to get at least some mileage out of my black cherry tomatoes, just getting ripe.

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