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Four O’Clocks (Mirabilis jalapa): Scents and Sensibility (part 2)

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Louise Beebe Wilder says that, on cloudy days, four o’clock flowers open early and stay open all day.  Gerard says that if the air is temperate, the flowers stay open all day and close at night. I’ll have to take their word for it: by the time it’s late enough in the summer for four o’clocks to bloom here, both rain and temperate air are long gone.

They have a tendency to loll and flop, and are fairly thirsty plants. On the other hand, they’ll come back nicely from water neglect, as I can personally attest, and the floppiness isn’t altogether bad if you’re growing them closely with other plants. You can kind of lay the plant out of the growth path of the ones they’re interplanted with. They will continue to bloom, upright or sideways.

A Canadian garden book says they’re supposed to grow only one to two feet tall, but the first one I ever saw was a wide round bush of at least three feet, and one of my plants that is flopping and growing sideways is getting to about that length. My Sunset Western Garden Book agrees with me: they grow to 3 or 4 feet. The likelihood is that hotter weather gets them to come on faster. But don’t lose heart if you live in a cool-summer climate, since they are reputed to grow, and flower prodigiously, in Canada and England. Maybe you’ll get to see their flowers open all day, to make up for shorter plants.

I’ve planted one of my four o’clocks in a container by the door, so that each day I can witness the miracle of new parti-colored flowers just by walking out the door. And each evening the flowers open, release their slightly-sweet pale lemon scent, and stay open until shortly after the sun hits them the next morning.

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Gerard describes the scent as being sweet like narcissus, but it isn’t to my nose. This could be because of a difference in our senses of smell, or because of a difference in varieties of Mirabilis jalapa. David Squire says its scent is “fruity and sweet”, which is more like my reading.

A sense of smell is an evanescent thing, and the interpretations and associations we give each odor are entirely personal, though there may be many people who share the same feelings about a single scent.

Mirabilis jalapa is not the herb called jalap, which comes from the root of Ipomoea jalapa, or High John the Conqueror root. Gerard claims that he heard from someone that the roots could be used as a purgative, but he doesn’t appear to have tested this claim. I’m thinking there’s a possibility he mixed up the two; jalap has long been known as a powerful purgative, and Gerard heard the purgative report from someone in Italy. It’s easy to get information scrambled when it comes a long distance, as anyone who has ever played the party game “Whisper Down the Lane” (sometimes known as “Telephone”) can testify.

Mirabilis jalapa caused quite a stir when it arrived in Europe (and what is now the UK) from the Americas. Gerard spends about three pages going on about it in his Herball (approximately 1636).  He says that the seed was brought from Peru to Spain, and thence to the rest of Europe, and England.  Parkinson, a bit later, is still excited about the diversity of the colors, but only enough to go on for two pages.

Among his observations on the habits of Mirabilis jalapa is,  “And I haue often also observed that one side of a plant will giue fairer varieties than another, which is most commonly the Easterne, as more temperate and shadowie side.”

This is strangely unlike my own experience with four o’clock, which mulishly refuses to bloom for me unless it gets a fair dose of sun throughout the day. Maybe morning sun was enough for the eastern side of Parkinson’s plants.

The name Mirabilis jalapa reflects an older name, Mirabilis Peruana, which translates into one of its modern common names: Marvel of Peru. Belle-de-nuit (“beauty of the night”) was common name for it in France, at least as late as the 1930s, and apparently it goes as “Beauty of the Night” (in English) in at least parts of North America. In older times, it was also called Marvell of the World (nursery-grower hype seems to be a tradition that has come down through the centuries). HachalI was, supposedly, the Peruvian name for it. Other European names were  Solanum Odoriferum; Jasminum Mexicanum; Carolus Clusius; Admirabilia Peruviana. All of which goes to show what Linnaeus had to deal with a little later, when he started standardizing plant names.

Educated people of the time used Latin as a common tongue, which is why all these names are in Latin, and why Linnaeus chose Latin for his binomials. Unlike the Latin-speakers above, he made the astounding move of relating plant the names to the family the plants were actually in, instead of just using names that plants reminded him of, or names of people he wished to honor (as in Carolus Clusius). We do, of course, keep to the European tradition of naming plants after people, but now we use cultivar or species names for that.

It’s an interesting cultural custom. In many cases, the plants named after European people were already well-known by non-European people in the plant’s country of origin. While I think the people who bring plants from one country to another, often at much peril, deserve credit, this makes me uneasy. European culture does seem to have a propensity for putting a stamp on things and calling them ours. I am not sure why we feel so compelled to do this. Fear, probably.

Gardens and plants make my mind wander down lengthy and little-used trails.  But it always comes back to the plants, the landscape, and our connections with them.

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References:

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

{ 7 comments… add one }

  • Racquel October 7, 2008, 10:05 am

    Four o’ Clocks are one of my favorite perennials in the garden. The wonderful fragrance & late afternoon -early morning blooms are lovely. I like your yellow & white swirled ones. Mine are hot pink & yellow.

  • Northern Shade October 7, 2008, 7:01 pm

    I remember collecting four o’clock seeds with my father. They didn’t last over winter so he planted them as an annual, and collected the seed in the fall.
    In zone 3 I take the label height for some plants with a grain of salt.

  • john July 14, 2010, 6:01 pm

    I think I have some ,,Four O’Clocks (Mirabilis jalapa),, in my garden but mine yellow and pink on the same flower petal, are they true,,,Four O’Clocks (Mirabilis jalapa)..?

  • Stamped Concrete September 25, 2014, 1:39 am

    Simply wish to say your article is as astounding.
    Thee clearness inn our post is just col and i can assjme you’re an expert on this subject.

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  • Edward October 25, 2014, 7:09 am

    Came to your site via a search for Mirabilis jalapa and I was wonderfully pleased by the breadth of your description–moving from gardening into ethnobotany–loved it and I fully appreciate your words about how you approach your landscape and gardens. Thank you.

  • Pomona Belvedere October 29, 2014, 5:03 pm

    Many thanks for the kind words – I am actually giving this site a long-needed revamp and hope to be back soon with more for you. I’m very gratified to know that people are still reading and enjoying my posts, since due to health I’ve neglected them sorely. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with the larger gardening world!

  • Manalto September 30, 2017, 4:40 am

    Jalapa (Xalapa) is the capital city of the state of Veracruz in Mexico.

    Thanks for the information. I don’t understand this sentence, however:

    “You can kind of lay the plant out of the growth path of the ones they’re interplanted with. “

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