This beautiful plant truly is a marvel! Although a native of tropical South America, it is almost effortless to grow, even in my northern garden! Come mid-summer, each evening brings fresh surprises as the flowers open to reveal their brilliant colors to the night!
Mirabilis jalapa is more widely known in this country as Four O'Clock, so called because the flowers typically open late in the afternoon, though from what I've observed, Five-Thirty or Six O'Clock would be more correct! Still, I like the name Marvel of Peru much better, and Gerard even goes so far as to say that it ought to be called "rather the Marvell of the World, than of Peru alone". Others were not so impressed, however. Rousseau, in his famous Letters on the Elements of Botany (1785), writes: "Upon the first discovery of the New World, as America was vauntingly called, everything found there was represented as wonderful. Strange stories were related of the plants and animals they met with, and those which were sent to Europe had pompous names given them. One of these is the Marvel of Peru, the only wonder of which is the variety of colours in the flowers". It has been given many fanciful names in the various countries where it is cultivated. In France it is known as Belle de Nuit (Beauty of the Night), and in Spain it is called Don Diego de Noche (Don Diego at Night).
The flowers are quite wonderful, many of them being fantastically striped in contrasting colors. No two flowers are quite alike, as Gerard says: "This marvelous variety doth not without cause bring admiration to all that observe it. For if the floures be gathered and reserved in severall papers, and compared with those floures that will spring and flourish the next day, you shall easily perceive that one is not like another in colour, though you shall compare one hundred which you gather one day, and another hundred which you gather the next day, and so from day to day during the time of their flouring".
The Marvel of Peru was first introduced into Spain and from there into the rest of Europe. It was named Mirabilia [admirable] peruviana by Carolus Clusius, from which we may conclude that the time of its introduction was about the middle of the 16th century. Gerard, writing in 1596, says that he had grown it for many years in his garden.
Later, it was renamed Mirabilis jalapa by Linnaeus, who mistakenly believed it to be the cathartic drug. The true Jalap is actually a species of Ipomoea, native to Mexico, but Gerard does mention that the roots of Marvel of Peru had been found to purge "waterish humours", although he says that it was "esteemed as yet rather for his rarenesse, beautie, and sweetnesse of his floures, than for any virtues knowne".
Speaking of Linnaeus, I can guess that he would have found this flower quite fascinating, considering his interest in designing a "floral clock" (a garden by which one could tell the time of day by the opening of the different flowers). The idea must not have worked out, although one of Linnaeus' friends commented that he "would soon put all the watchmakers in Sweden out of business", thus making himself highly unpopular! (quoted from The Compleat Naturalist: A Life of Linnaeus, by Wilfrid Blunt).
By the end of the 19th century, this plant, once considered such a wonder, seems to have fallen somewhat out of favor, and was grown only in "old-fashioned" gardens. In an article published in 1890, E. P. Powell laments, "Four O'Clocks were pretty then and are pretty now; but who grows them?". Yet it has always had its admirers, and probably always will. Though it doesn't seem to be very widely grown (I have not seen them here in any gardens besides my own), the name Four O'Clock seems to bring back happy childhood memories for many people...
I'm under the pear tree, sitting all alone ;
Even my father, who is completely flower illiterate (once while on our way to town, he noticed that I was admiring some Forget-me-nots growing along the roadside and startled me by exclaiming, "Oh, look at all the lovely HOLLYHOCKS! 😁), remembers Four O'Clocks growing in his uncle's garden.
In the language of flowers, the Marvel of Peru (or Four O'Clock--whichever you prefer!) represents timidity, because it is seemingly too shy to reveal its beauty and fragrance to the day.
Although a perennial in its native tropical climate, it is easily grown as an annual. The plant forms tubers which can be dug up in the fall and replanted in spring, but it is so quick and easy to grow from seed that it is hardly worth the trouble. Gardeners with very short growing seasons (that's me!) can start the seeds indoors 4-6 weeks before the last frost. In my garden they usually start blooming about the middle of July and continue until the first fall frost. The flowers usually close as soon as the sun hits them in the morning, but on cloudy days, and as the season progresses and days become cooler, they often stay open most of the day.
To quote Gerard again, this is "a pleasant plant to decke the gardens of the curious". Such a beautiful and carefree flower certainly deserves a more prominent place in our gardens!
I am a passionate gardener and seed-saver, who also enjoys playing the violin and accordion, running, spending time with my 4 golden retrievers, keeping chickens, photography, and reading.