Friday, July 18, 2008

Gardener's Bloom Day : Mirabilis Jalapa

This month's GBD post (a bit late - sorry) focuses on a plant I've grown for the last three years, and which has become a firm favourite - Mirabilis Jalapa. Originally from South America, it's been known in Europe for the last five hundred years. It's a plant which has a thousand and one common names - you probably know it as the Four o'clock plant, but it's also commonly called Beauty of the night or Marvel of Peru amongst other things in English, while the Chinese apparently call it the Rice Boiling Plant or Shower Flower, and in Hong Kong it's Purple Jasmine.

It's a sun loving plant which can't take cold temperatures, and is therefore often grown as an annual. However, although it will die down in the autumn, the tubers can be lifted and stored, much like dahlias, or if it's not too cold just left where they are. This year I grew some plants from last year's tubers and others from seed, starting both off at about the same time. The tubers have come on far faster and are now in flower, while the others are still fairly small. If you do plant from seed, try soaking the seeds for a day or so before you put them in. They germinate far faster.

The plants grow to about 3ft, and don't seem to have any particular requirements as far as soil is concerned, though one site I found suggested they like slightly alkaline conditions. That would explain why they do so well for me, as the water here is very hard, and I have problems with lime-hating plants. They need a lot of water, and wilt immediately if they get dry. However, despite looking very dramatic, they do pick up again well once they've had a good soak.

The plants put out copious quantities of flowers, which can have a wide range of colours and are sometimes variegated. They're set off well by the bright green leaves which are half the attraction of the plant. The flowers are well known for the fact that they don't open till the evening - hence many of their names - but the other intriguing thing about them is that they will often put out different coloured flowers on the same plant. It hasn't happened yet this year, but here's a photo of one I had two years ago.

The flowers only last a day, but are replaced by others immediately. Large seeds then form, at first greeny yellow but maturing to black, again providing an attractive contrast with the foliage.

In a garden the plant will happily self seed, but if you don't want it to it's easy to collect the seeds for storage (if time consuming because of the quantities). If you have small children around, however, beware. The seeds, which look temptingly like little sweets, are poisonous - as are other parts of the plant.

Being poisonous hasn't stopped it having a long history as a medicinal plant however, as it also has antifungal and antiviral properties (don't try this at home). Various chemical compounds extracted from the plant are now used commercially as the basis of products combatting viruses in crops such as corn and potatoes.

This probably explains why they are one of the few plants that I've never seen affected by pests and diseases. While all else is succumbing to the red spider mite or powdery mildew, the Four o'clocks plough on bright and healthy. Which for me guarantees their place on the balcony any year.

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chaiselongue said...

These are beautiful. They grow as a weed here in the Languedoc all over the place, but very welcome. And I've seen them with different coloured flowers on the same plant, too. In French they're called Belle de nuit. I'll put a comment with a link to your post on citygardener's blog (in Greece) because a post there asked what they were called in English and I didn't know. Thanks for the photos and informative post.

Sue Swift said...

Hi Chaiselongue - yes the Italian name is the same : Bella di notte

Anonymous said...

Rice boiling plant? That doesn't sound very enticing! ;-)

I'm glad I'm not the only one who is just getting their GBD post up.

Carol Michel said...

Nice profile. I love the four o'clocks, they remind me of being a kid. But they were too aggressive for my garden, so I had to get rid of them.

Nice to see them blooming on your balcony.

Thanks for joining in for bloom day!

Carol, May Dreams Gardens

VP said...

Hurrah - something's doing well :)

Thanks for the congrats BTW :D

Unknown said...

Huh, I've never heard the other names for what I know as Four O'Clocks... but Beauty of the Night (Bella di notte, belle de nuit) is my favorite. I wonder at the name "Rice Boiling Plant," though. Do they call it that because it flowers at the same time that you would start boiling rice for supper, or...?

growingagardenindavis said...

I've had four o'clocks for years although I have to pull most out or they'd take over. I knew they grew from seed and tuber but never realized they bloomed earlier from tubers...that explains a lot! So for earlier bloom I'll try to only pull new plants from seed. Thanks for the education!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the information about this plant which is, as everyone says, absolutely beautiful. We live on a mile high ridge in S. Catalunya and have it in the garden. It dies right back to nothing in the winter, which can be very cold, but appears again in June each year.

Sue Swift said...

Fern and BG - Yes, as far as I understand it's called the "Rice Boiling Plant" because the blooms open just when it's time to get the evening meal.

tina said...

I love these little plants, but they do self seed to a fault. Those are cool names.

Rosa said...

Yes, Bella di Notte. Exquisite perfume at night. I made the mistake of sowing some seeds in our garden at Positano and now I can't get rid of them!

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