August 12, 2006

Time for four o'clocks

Yesterday I beat back the gorilla-sized datura that was terrorizing my tiny front bed to give the PG hydrangea and the four o'clocks a chance to breathe. I am telling you this, of course, merely as a ploy to give myself a chance to talk about four o'clocks alias Mirabilis jalapa. But you already guessed that, didn't you?

Four o'clocksFour o'clocks are tender perennials usually grown as annuals in Canada. Their somewhat fragrant little trumpets open in late afternoon - hence the name - and come mostly in vibrant pink and yellow, although white and apricot are sometimes seen too. The occasional plant is unable to make up its mind between yellow and pink and will bear flowers in both those colours, as well as blooms that are "broken", showing both colours without mixing them. All of these will appear at the same time on the same plant, which I honestly didn't believe until I checked it carefully myself.

The way I prefer to use four o'clocks is to seed them over spring-blooming bulbs and around the Asiatic lilies that die back earlier in the season. They'll get off to a slow enough start to let the bulbs strut their stuff without competion, then hide their dying foliage before it gets to be too much of an eyesore. This doesn't work as well with the very early bulbs, but is great for mid-to-late season tulips and the like.

Last year's datura/mirabilis comboThey are also a great companion to evening-blooming daturas, echoing the shape of the flowers, but providing a size and colour contrast.

Four o'clocks aren't particularly drought-resistant, but they'll let you know when they're thirsty with limp leaves and spring back none the worse for wear when you water them. They are advertised as full sun, but as is often the case, will take considerably less if they have to.

They are very, very easy to start from seed just about any way you like: winter-sowing, starting indoors, sowing directly in the garden, or just letting them reseed themselves. Easy is good. The seeds look like little black grenades and sowing them would make a great project for kids, as they are big enough - about the size of large grapefruit seeds - to be easy to handle and have an excellent germination rate, even after several years in the fridge.

Four o'clocks are also tougher than you may have been led to believe. I've had self-sown seedlings happily survive a spring snowfall and one time even had one grow back from last year's root. (I'd mulched rather heavily with leaves before the ground froze, although not with the goal of saving the Mirabilis.) You can, if you wish, dig up the thick, fleshy root in the fall and save it to plant out in the spring, but seeing as I have never done this successfully, I can't tell you anything more about it. Truth be told, they are so easy to grow from seed, I haven't bothered to try saving the roots more than once.

After all that, I guess I don't really need to tell you that four o'clocks somehow manage to work their way into my garden almost every year.

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Claire Splan said...

Four O'clocks work their way into my garden too. In fact, I can't keep them out and god knows, I've tried.

It's worth noting that in milder climates, four o'clocks can be downright invasive. The tuberous roots overwinter just fine in the ground and grow to be huge. I've had some approaching 12 inches in length. And if you don't pull out the entire tuber, but leave a piece of it behind, it will still sprout. Given that and its reseeding abilities, it can quickly become a pest.

I've been trying all year to get rid of the four o'clocks that have descended from the seeds I planted a couple years ago. They took over an entire bed and I found that the scent, which some people rave about,is in fact almost non-existent. (Perhaps that is different in climates with more severe winters.) I've finally let a few of them come up after all, just because I'm tired of fighting them.

I'm glad to hear that someone likes these plants. As they say, there's a lid for every pot!

Janet said...

Claire, thank you for posting your experience with four o'clocks! This is a perfect illustration of why what works for one gardener might not work for another; conditions make a world of difference.

Personally, I can't smell the fragrance either, but my husband's family love it, so I guess their noses are wired differently.

Pam said...

Hi Janet!

I followed the link you put in the GardenWeb annuals forum, and I have to say, I really enjoyed your article - love your writing style too. What you write is always so interesting to read!

I first saw Four O'Clocks growing in a lady's garden in Wasaga Beach a couple of years ago. She didn't know what they were called and I said I'd find out. She had SO MANY of them, that I was shocked to discover they weren't a returning perennial. I haven't seen her again so I don't know whether she grew those from seed, or brought the roots inside for the winter. But what you're saying makes me think they seeded very easily for her too, and I think that's zone 4 up there! I'll definitely try them after reading your experiences. When I first saw them I was completely charmed by that dual colour thing - all her bushes (they were huge) were yellow and magenta. And I could smell them, OH MY, sweet, delicate, wonderful. Now I can't wait. It's almost my biggest excitement for next year!

Thanks again for posting such helpful information, Janet!

Pam (from Whitby, Ontario)

Janet said...

Pam, thanks a lot for the kind words. I was always a sucker for flattery.

I know a fellow who grows a hedge of four o'clocks around his patio every year. I think he spaces them about 12" apart. I also had a neighbour who would espalier them against a brick wall! Lots of things you can do.

Mine tend to be floppy because I cram them into crowded beds with relatively little sunlight, but they're still worth it, in my opinion. I just wish I had a little more room. If we end up not moving after all, the first thing I will do is expand those flower beds!

Good luck with yours. Seeds are widely available, so you shouldn't have much trouble finding them.

Star said...

I love Four O'clocks, my grandmother started me with these flowers,and every fall I would have to pick the seeds. Now I have them in my garden. I have been terrorized the past 3 years by japanese beetles, and have tried everything to get rid of them. My flourist just told me that if you plant Four O'clocks in your garden the JB's will eat the plant and fly off and die. So now I am planting more four O'clocks around all of my roses, rose of sharrons, and any otherflower that they eat.
Good luck with your gardens.