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Four O'Clock

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Whether you have a tiny patio garden or an estate-sized plot, you probably have a place for Four O'Clocks in your home landscape scheme.  Also known as Marvel-of-Peru or Beauty of the Night, the prolific flowering and fragrance of these tough shrub-sized plants belies their adaptability and persistence in virtually any soil or garden conditions. This is a near perfect fast-growing large plant for beginner gardeners and is a must for a fragrance garden or cottage garden plan.  Grown easily from seed, this plant produces a large carrot-type tuber that extends a long way down into the soil, making Four O'Clocks extremely drought resistant and suitable for those with gardens in very dry areas.

My own experience with Four O'Clocks has been a mixed bag.  I originally found a mature plant growing in a corner of my property.  At the time, I didn't know what it was, but it was beautiful, and I knew I wanted it in the front of the house.  I dug and dug and eventually unearthed a tuber about 2 feet long, which I broke off while trying to get it out of the ground.  I planted it in front where I wanted it, and for about a week it didn't look like it was going to make it, but I kept watering it often and hoping for the best.  Finally, it perked up and excelled for the rest of the season, and I was thrilled.  Having just moved into the house, and with little in the way of a garden, that shrub-sized Four O'Clock with its bright color was a great thing.  By the next spring, I had tilled the area for the garden and I started noticing tiny little Four O'Clock seedlings all over the disturbed area.  Not having much money for plants, I allowed most of them to stay put to fill in the garden space, which they did in a hurry.  By the third year, there were so many Four O'Clocks that I was beginning to consider them weeds and I started pulling every seedling I found, but those original tubers were still there and they grew with great enthusiasm, choking out a lot of the other plants I had added to the garden.  I have seen Four O'Clock seedlings coming up between pavers in the walkway, in the lawn, and I even saw one in the neighbor's flower bed two doors down this year. 

Now, despite all this, I still like this plant.  In fact, I would even like to add different colors to the garden.  Four O'Clocks come in vivid pinks, yellows, whites, reds, and oranges.  The picture above is of a descendent of that original plant and this is the only color I grow in my garden because these plants reseed so freely and I'm afraid to add even more.  The good news is that the seedlings pull easily, and mature plants will take hard pruning to keep them within bounds.  In colder weather regions unless mulched heavily, the tubers will probably die off in the winter, and in these regions other than the pesky seedlings, these plants should be completely controllable.  The tubers can be dug and stored in fall along with the Dahlias in colder weather regions, but this shouldn't be necessary considering how successfully the plants reseed themselves. 

As one might infer from the name, Four O'Clocks bloom late in the day and the blooms and fragrance persist through the night until early the next morning.  Though they are called Four O'Clocks, they bloom a good bit later than 4 p.m.  - it's really more like 6 p.m. here.  Rather than light bringing them into  bloom every evening, they are actually responding to temperature change, and on cooler cloudy days they will open earlier and close later in the morning.  Pollinated flowers will close earlier than non-pollinated flowers, explaining to some extent the success this plant has in dropping viable seed.  Four O'Clocks sport trumpet-shaped flowers in vivid colors, as noted above, and grow to shrub size - about 3 feet or more with similar width.  Bloom time is mid summer until frost.  Each flower is followed by a hard black seed about the size of a peppercorn.  The flowers are the perfect shape for hummingbirds, and also attract butterflies and bees.  Four O'clocks are virtually insect and disease-free, and will tolerate pollution from autos and sub-standard soil conditions.  As such they are a good choice for a seasonal hedge along a roadway or near a hot driveway or garage area. 

The most commonly grown Four O'Clock in home gardens is Marabilis Jalapa, which is the type pictured above.  Four O'clocks are members of the large nightshade family, with relatives including tomatoes, potatoes, petunias, and tobacco.  As with many of the nightshades, all parts of Four O'Clocks are poisonous if ingested,  causing nausea and vomiting, so this is not a plant to be cultivated near the swing set out back.  There have also been reports of skin irritation after handling Four O'Clock tubers. 

Four O'Clocks are grown easily from seed, and when starting packet seeds, it will go faster if you soak the seed in warm water overnight first.  I don't think I have ever seen a Four O'Clock plant for sale at the garden center, so seed is probably the only way you will be able to introduce this plant to your garden.  In my experience, these plants will excel in virtually any garden setting, from full sun to fairly deep shade, so put them anywhere you need a flowering bush, especially near patios and doorways where you can enjoy the fragrance.  As with all plants, they appreciate some mulch and maybe a feeding during the season, but this is one plant that actually seems to thrive on neglect, so don't baby it too much. 

More information on Four O'Clocks is available in the Gardening QA Section.  Click here to see what other gardeners are asking. 



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