2010-07-29 / News

The ‘happy hour’ plant

Flotsam and Jetsam
By Donna Drago

The first garden I ever had as a kid was at my grandfather’s house in Providence. I was about nine.

He recognized my apparent interest in his garden, which was not hard to do since I was like a puppy – always right on his heels. He prepared a small, rectangular bed for me in the backyard.

We planted two things: Potatoes and four o’clocks. He was a very practical and frugal guy, so I imagine we planted the potatoes because there were some in the house that had started to sprout. I believe we tried the four o’clocks because they were easy to start from seed. I can’t really remember much about my first crop of potatoes, but I have always had a love affair with four o’clocks.

The quirky annuals have a great personality and do some neat tricks. On the same plant, there can be blossoms of different colors – mostly dark pinks, yellows and white. Sometimes, there are plants where all the flowers turn out speckled. One of the best features is the wonderful, sweet fragrance. I was sniffing mine last night and decided that the scent is a cross between grape jelly and carnations.

Officially mirabilis jalapa, four o’clocks got their common name because they always open in the afternoon – just in time for “happy hour.” The word mirabilis means “wonderful.”

In my childhood garden, my grandfather and I would check things out in the afternoon to see if the four o’clocks had opened yet. On sunny days, the flowers would wait until the temperature dropped to a comfortable level. On cloudy, cool days, the four o’clocks would be raring to go and open earlier. No matter what time they open, the blossoms last all night and then begin shriveling up about the time the sun comes up the next morning. So if you miss seeing them in the afternoon, you have lost your chance.

In preparation to write this column, I went out to see what my four o’clocks were doing on a recent afternoon.

At 3:15 p.m., I could tell which of the buds was going to open that day. They had elongated and swelled so that the blossom color was evident on the exterior of the bud. Nothing happened for quite a while after that and when 4:01 came, I went out and told them all that they were late! At 4:17, one bud had begun to unfurl and reveal its star-shaped tip. At 4:30, two of the three buds I was watching were unfurling and had begun to look like a loosely-closed umbrella.

I checked back every two minutes or so after that and found that by 4:37, all three of the buds I was observing were open enough to see into the tube. At 4:44 p.m., I proclaimed them open. I smelled them, thinking I would be greeted with that familiar jelly scent, but I learned something interesting – the fragrance doesn’t begin to release until more than an hour after the blossom is open.

The four o’clocks I am growing in my garden these days came from the tiny Umbrian town of Spello, which is famed for the hundreds of flower boxes and pots that line each street and the fronts of nearly every house. I hadn’t grown four o’clocks in years until – while wandering through this adorable town a few years ago – I came upon a pot of them in full bloom. They were the deepest fuchsia pink and smelled wonderful.

Memories of my childhood garden came flooding back, and I just had to have them. So I gathered eight fat black seeds from the Italian plant and brought them back to the states, where they have been growing ever since. When my four o’clocks show up closer to five, I know it’s because they are still on “Italian time.”

Four o’clocks are very easy to grow from seed. The large black seeds look like small Chinese lanterns and can be planted in a pot or in a garden border. The plants get to be about 2.5 feet tall and wide, and will continue to bloom from July to the frost. They are hardy in the southern states, but must be treated as annuals in the northeast.

A few days after each bloom, a new seed will form on the plant. Collect and save them to enjoy the happy hour spectacle next year.

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