Posted by & filed under Plant Systems.

by Stephanie Ladwig-Cooper

Four O’Clock plants have a long history of cultivation and use around the world as well as serve many useful functions, with more to experiment with — like as a dye and dynamic accumulator.

Our family lives in a historic neighborhood of Chico, California called the Barber Neighborhood. Our neighborhood was named after O. C. Barber, the founder of the Diamond Match Company, who had a factory built nearby to process lumber for matches at the turn of the twentieth century. Our home was built in approximately 1909. Because of the age of this neighborhood we have found in around our property an abundance of old trees and shrubs of what many this day would consider cottage garden or great-grandma plants. One of these is the four o’clock plant, growing prolifically near our garage and mandarin tree. Not many people go out of their way to buy and grow this plant in their gardens anymore. Why? I couldn’t say as I’ve found it is a really interesting and beautiful plant with a long history of cultivation.

The scientific name for four o’clock is Mirabilis jalapa. This plant has too many common names to list but many people know the plant as a four o’clock, marvel-of-Peru, beauty-of-the-night or clavillia. It’s a native to South America and has naturalized all over the world for hundreds of years.

History

In doing my due diligence on this plant I stumbled upon a historic document written by Swedish naturalist, Frederick Hasselquist (1) and published by the famous botanist Charles (Carl) Linnaeus (2) for the Queen consort of Sweden, Louisa Ulrika (3). Dr. Hasselquist traveled from 1749-1752 (and ultimately died before his return) to what was then called the ‘Levant’ or the region of the eastern Mediterranean between Anatolia and Egypt. He briefly wrote about four o’clock plants "cultivated in the gardens and walks at Cairo" in his book ‘Voyages and Travels in the Levant in the Years 1749, 50, 51, 52: Containing Observations in Natural History, Physick, Agriculture, and Commerce, Particularly on the Holy Land, and the Natural History of the Scriptures’ (4).


Title page (left) and p. 243 (right), with mention of the plant at top of page

I find it immensely gratifying to read about plants from an historical perspective. It makes me feel closer and more connected to the plants I live and work with every day. Not only that but as I learn about how to care for and utilize these plants I am empowered by the knowledge that others have been growing these plants for hundreds of years.

Characteristics

Four o’clocks are hardy perennials which go dormant in the winter and survive via their deep tuberous roots down to below freezing. Even in cold climates where the temperatures reach well below freezing the large, black carrot shaped tubers (which can be a foot or more long) can survive with heavy mulches or be dug up and stored for the winter and replanted in the spring. They flower from mid April to October here in our Mediterranean climate. We’ve found this plant to be quite drought hardy and seems to have utilized our loamy soils’ water reserves from winter rain via the downspout nearby. It has excellent east to west sun exposure for most of the day and while the flowers all close up by 11am they reopen at dusk and produce a fragrance that is reminiscent of Gardenias.


Flowers open at 9am (left) and closed by 11am (right)

Uses

The edibility and medicinal value of four o’clock is in some dispute. Some say the whole plant is poisonous and may even be a skin irritant — we haven’t found the latter to be true when working the plant. While we haven’t tried to eat any part of the plant the website Plants for a Future (5) claims it can be eaten as a “survival food”.

Other sites claim the four o’clock plant was used by the Aztecs as a medicine (6) and is still used for its antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal properties. The Healing Power of Rainforest Herbs by Leslie Taylor, ND states that the “Chemical analysis of clavillia [four o’clock] shows that it is rich in many active compounds including triterpenes, proteins, flavonoids, alkaloids, and steroids. Of particular interest to researchers is a group of amino acid-based proteins, called mirabilis antiviral proteins (MAPs). These chemicals have shown specific antiviral and antifungal actions. They are produced in the seeds, roots, and young shoots, and help the plant protect against various plant viruses and soil-borne fungi. In 1994, a Japanese tobacco company was awarded a U.S. patent on the MAPs in clavillia as being effective in protecting economically-important crops (such as tobacco, corn, and potatoes) from a large variety of plant viruses (such as tobacco mosaic virus, spotted leaf virus and root rot virus).” (7)

Another article by researchers from Life Science Research Laboratory in Japan titled DNA Sequence of Mirabilis Antiviral Protein (MAP), a Ribosome-inactivating Protein with an Antiviral Property, from Mirabilis jalapa L. and Its Expression in Escherichia coli backs up this claim of anti-viral properties. “Mirabilis antiviral protein (MAP) isolated from the roots of Mirabilis jalapa L. induces the plant’s systemic resistance against the mechanical transmission of plant viruses, such as tobacco mosaic virus and cucumber green mottle mosaic virus”. (8) It’s interesting to note that our plant shows absolutely no indication of pests or disease problems and is never touched by any critter but bees, particularly carpenter and bumble bees.


Carpenter bee on flowers

One utility of the plant that I would like to investigate further is its use as a dye. According to an eastern Indian article titled Dye yielding plants of Assam for dyeing handloom textile products from The Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge (9) a red dye can be made from boiling a paste of the flowers for coloring cotton. The flowers are spectacular and in a variety of colors; red, pink, striped, bi-colored and white are what we have found in our yard. If we could use the red and pink colors for dye we would be in luck for fabrics or, if truly edible, for coloring eggs at Easter.


Flower colors in our yard

Given that most of the information I’ve collected about four o’clocks tells me the seeds are the most potent part of the plant, I may not be inclined to eat any part of the flower or any of the plant for that matter until more research has been done.


Mature four o’clock seed

One thing I will try out, as it seems to be getting a bit unruly at the moment, is to see how it functions as a dynamic accumulator plant. The deep tuberous root system may function to mine minerals in the subsoil. The top soil could utilize the free nutrients if I chop and drop it on a regular basis. Also, if the plant functions as antiviral it may also help prevent disease in the garden. And lastly, I’ve noticed our Mandarin tree hasn’t required such rigorous amounts of water this year despite the overall decrease in rainfall this last season — so it may be that the four o’clock seedlings which grew in this year have shaded the ground around the tree creating a moister environment. Free nutrients, disease protection and reduced irrigation is always a benefit to any garden.


Mandarin tree with four o’clocks

I’m glad I took the time to read up on this plant growing in our little yard and will be more apt to let it live knowing what I do now. I’m the kind of person who needs a plant to serve many functions (especially living on a 1/10th of an acre) and while the beauty of the flowers and the deep fragrance in the evening has been a real joy this summer I’m glad to know its history and a bit more of the functions it could provide our family and our gardens.

Note: Four O’clocks are prolific re-seeders in warm climates and can be quite hardy due to their large tap root. Be wary of planting them near waterways or other adverse locations where they may take over. While this plant is not on the U.S. Federal Noxious Weeds list (10) nor in the California Invasive Plant Inventory Database (11) it seems worthwhile to take precautions so it doesn’t spread out of control.

If anyone has experience utilizing four o’clocks please let me know! I’m always keen to learn more!

References:

  1. Fredrik Hasselqvist: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fredrik_Hasselqvist
  2. Charles Linnaeus: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Linnaeus
  3. Louisa Ulrika of Prussia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louisa_Ulrika_of_Prussia
  4. Voyages and Travels in the Levant in the Years 1749, 50, 51, 52: Containing Observations in Natural History, Physick, Agriculture, and Commerce, Particularly on the Holy Land, and the Natural History of the Scriptures [page 243] By Frederick Hasselquist: http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/101559
  5. Plants for a Future, Mirabilis jalapa: http://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Mirabilis+jalapa
  6. Illustrated Flora of North Central Texas [page 840] By Diggs, Jnr. G.M.; Lipscomb. B. L. & O’Kennon. R. J: http://artemis.austincollege.edu/acad/bio/gdiggs/NCTX%20pdf/FNCT%200618-1076.pdf
  7. The Healing Power of Rainforest Herbs By Leslie Taylor, ND –Tropical Plant Database: http://rainforest-database.com/plants/clavillia.htm
  8. DNA Sequence of Mirabilis Antiviral Protein (MAP), a Ribosome-inactivating Protein with an Antiviral Property, from Mirabilis jalapa L. and Its Expression in Escherichia coli By Jiro KataokaS, Noriyuki Habuka, Masahiro Furuno, Masashi Miyano, Yoichi Takanami, and Akira Koiwai: http://www.jbc.org/content/266/13/8426.full.pdf+html
  9. Dye yielding plants of Assam for dyeing handloom textile products By A.Kar and SK Borthakur from The Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge Vol. 7(1), January 2008, pp.166-171: http://nopr.niscair.res.in/bitstream/123456789/599/1/IJTK%207%281%29%20%282008%29%20166-171.pdf
  10. United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Invasive and Noxious Weeds: http://plants.usda.gov/java/noxious?rptType=Federal
  11. California Invasive Plant Council (Cal-IPC), California Invasive Plant Inventory Database: http://www.cal-ipc.org/ip/inventory/weedlist.php

 

 

32 Responses to “Due Diligence: Four O’Clock Plants”

  1. aa

    i remember these from my parents extensive garden in north east victoria (australia), i was very young then sadly i don’t remember any details except the appearance.

    Reply
  2. Stephanie

    I too remember them from when I was young visiting my grandparents in Berkeley, California and I learned a little about them as an ornamental in horticulture classes but I had no idea of their history or benefits til we moved into our 100 year old home and I dug around… I still find it strange they aren’t popular anymore.

    Reply
  3. Garden Girl in South Africa

    I have these growing in my garden in Cape Town. They are truly water-wise, when everything else in my garden is looking dry and withered these put on a fantastic display in our hot, dry summer. They obligingly die back in winter allowing my native plants to shine in their favourite season. Thank you for a really interesting article.

    Reply
  4. Stephanie

    They are really water wise; our climate is extremely hot and dry in the summer (105˚F today) and they are growing just fine. Its great to hear from people who have either grown or seen the four o’clocks growing on two different continents! Thank you both for commenting.

    Reply
    • Nathine

      Mine were growing well in Phoenix until last week, when they started to drop leaves. Can’t find any information about them shutting down in a warm climate over the winter (would be related to photo period not temperature)

      Reply
      • Charolette

        In LA they go skeletal and either recover with water or don’t and shrivel- then pop back up in a few months. Are yours new from seed or old tubers? The young ones are more temperamental. Once they have a few years, they go and go and go – but take a few months in the cold or shorter days off.

        Reply
  5. mischief

    I have these growing near my vegie garden.I love them and so do the bees.
    With ours, the flowers are from late afternoon right through to mid morning the next day and smell wonderful.
    I have never heard of any other uses for them though.

    Reply
  6. Stephanie

    It’s pretty amazing what I found out about the uses for this plant; I love the due diligence permaculture necessitates. I’m looking forward to trying it out as a dye soon and am actively chopping and dropping it now as it’s grown over a pathway. We’re placing it all around the mandarin tree and will continue to chop it into the veg beds over the fall months. Maybe I’ll update after we get some results of it’s use(s)!

    Reply
  7. Maureen McGrath

    My four o’clocks really don’t have a strong smell, but I was wondering if their tuberous roots were edible. They are shaped, and are as big as sweet potatoes by the end of the season.

    Reply
  8. Stephanie

    Maureen, Have you gone out in the late evening to smell your flowers? Ours smell up our whole yard on a still evening (granted our yard is only 1/10th of an acre:).

    Mirabilis expansa is the only one I know of in that genus (and not through personal experience but vicariously through another and Cornucopia II: A Source Book of Edible Plants ) that has edible parts. Everything I found about Mirabilis jalapa indicates there is a lot of concern about its edibility. Because of the huge tuber I’m experimenting with it as a dynamic accumulator plant by chopping and dropping it for mulch but we’re not considering eating it.

    Reply
  9. Paulina

    My yard is full of Four O’clock flowers. I am trying to grow only edible plants, flowers, and grass. I would love to eat the root of the plant. Where I can find a reliable source that I can trust to tell me if I may eat it?

    Reply
  10. Marina Bistrin

    hi i’m from melbourne victoria – have had a love-hate relationship with these, as i’m trying to grow vegetables in my back yard. they grow much gbetter and bigger than the vegies and the tuber grows very big over a few years and is hard to dig the whole thing out. the seeds grow all over the place, but the plant smells DIVINE and is a great summer shade crop to keep the soil cool. i will consider letting some grow and chopping them down to make mulch.

    Reply
  11. Karen

    Stephanie, when you say “chop and drop” are you including all the spent flower heads. I feel that if I did this I will have them coming up everywhere. They ARE hardy, prolific bloomers with a gazillion seeds but I would like to know what to do with all the vegetative matter that they produce. I am not inclined to leave them until the frost kills them. I moved to an urban block last year and heavily mulched the strip between front fence and footpath. The whole 7mtres came bursting up with these four o’clock plants and have not stopped growing and flowering all long hot, dry summer. But they are starting to loose their lushness.

    Reply
  12. Robert Spaulding

    I live in USDA zone 9 in California’s central valley. I propogated a flat of 4 O’clocks a couple years ago and set them out in my small yard. Now this year I am attempting to remove them and find it a difficult task. I never new a flower could wreak so much dominance. The large scattered tubers are the problem. Just when I think I have removed them they come back, worse than Iris bulbs. The have voluntarily spread to my neighbors yard and while they are a beautiful thing, they are getting away from me at this point. I would only plant these again within a raised bed with a closed bottom, or on a very large property where spreading would not pose a problem. They are rather unruly and give an old farmstead ragged appearance as they spread.

    Reply
    • wacy

      I am with Robert on this one. I live in Austin Tx and am also experiencing aggressive 4 O’Clocks. They are popping up outside of the flower beds and get huge during the summer months, actually cover parts of my crushed granite walkways. The tubes/bulbs do go quite deep into the earth. Very important to get the whole tube when digging them up or they WILL come back. I try to get out the first of spring to get the babies before the dive to the bottom of the earth. lol They are a great plant in the right location with lots of room to flourish

      Reply
  13. Geralyn_D

    I am a nibbler! I start small as a precaution but yep I NIBBLE! One of the 4’oclocks in my yard has NO flowers! Weird! the leaves LOOK tasty so after tasting a leaf and finding it a mild green similar to spinach (just a couple times and small leaves) I came to do research. I find no reason for the flowerless plant though it may be the oldest one in the yard and past that process?? Tell me if you find any flowerless ones.

    I suffer from a chronic staph infection (in the shin bone not MRSA so drs say). I am taking a break from antibiotics(plus prednisone) as they were causing problems and not “curing” the infection. Next step is a six week course of drugs aiee!! So I have way too much time for research and Voila! Mirabilis Jalapa (red-violet in my yard) seems to have something to offer… I still have 2 wounds that have not healed in 3 months. I can get it to scab over and stop dripping but it just suppresses the infection below the skin and it is ever ready to break out. I use many herbal and dietary means to control it, just holding it at bay really, though the drs are confounded by my good bloodwork results it is obiously still a really deep seated infection.

    So I started by mashing leaves to apply to the wounds which itch at a maddening depth and it seems to have helped that, Hmmm…
    So I made another mash and applied before bedtime and this is where it takes a really intersting turn. During the night I had the most lucid dream which I can recall as if in a movie, a dream of escaping from a dire situation! successfully! Then I awoke but lay there thinking how the infection had robbed me of dreams for the last year or so, I lay there with my eyes closed (I think) and I could see flashing lights to the left and right of what would be my field of vision causing me to open my eyes but seeing nothing I relaxed again only to notice a colorful pattern within (as if projected on the back of my eyelids) Seeing nothing really fearful I decided to leave the wrap on and try to sleep again which I did.

    Before bed I recall reading an Erowid type discussion of the plant and I recall someone saying that he heard it may produce psychedelics through absorbsion… He may be right but it was nothing like LSD just vivid dreaming, pleasant to me as I miss dreaming. So that is my experience so far I have dug up a 2 inch thick and am going to try some things that I read about.
    Cautiously, though the same discussion shows it may be safe enough to dabble with it.
    http://www.bluelight.ru/vb/archive/index.php/t-289260(DOT)html

    Reply
    • Geralyn_D

      My dog has never been inclined to sniff at or nibble this plant BUT when I dug up some of the tubers he takes delight in gnawing on them and has come to no harm.

      Reply
      • cheryl

        Thats nice to hear my dogs just got into my four clocks and i was worried about them getting sick or worst yet dieing from this flower……..

        Reply
  14. crado

    can you send me seed and teach me this plant for demo farms in africa because we have a fertile land please call me on +256782950306 because my land is idle

    Reply
  15. Ashley

    Hi! I have some second year fouroclocks that are about 7 Inches tall now and were in a small pot and I noticed they grew very fast to this height then stopped, and I didn’t notice all the leaves it produced underneath the larger ones or the tiny little buds just coming through until after I replanted them in a larger pot thinking they just needed more room to grow so I just did it. Now they are really droopy. The leaves I mean. Did I do something wrong? Will they perk back up? Was it just a little shock from uprooting them? They were really sturdy leaves and not five minutes after I put them in their new pot with the sme good soil they love did they start drooping. I’ve looked this up to no avail. Can anyone tell me if I should just hope for best but be prepared to lose them or if it’s just a shock process that they’ll get over and perk back up? The stems are still strong. It’s just the leaves that are drooping. Please respond and thanks! :((

    Reply
    • Ashley

      Well I was kind of freaking out and for good reason I thought lol. My larger of the two (meaning taller and thicker stemmed) literally perked up before my very eyes I watched the leaves stand up and out straight again. Now they look like they always have but the slightly smaller one is still very drooped. I think I might cry if it does. It’s tuber and roots were much smaller than the other one.. Did I do this at the wrong time of year since it was actively growing still? Or is that the right time to do it? Any comments will be greatly appreciated. Thanks guys.. :))

      Reply
    • Gregory T. O'Connell

      Ashley,
      You may want to move the plant out of full sun for a few hours at a time and see how it behaves. The leaves on my four-o-clock droop when in full sun. When placed in part shade , it is in an old fahsioned tin bath-tub (cute huh) it perks right back up. I do not know how these things are supposed to receive 8 hours of full sun and accept drought.

      Reply
    • Jane

      Ashley,
      You’ve probably discovered by now that the original leaves will mostly die but then it will put forth new leaves and flourish. I transplanted some tubers from one flower bed to another and though I thought they were going to die, they came back quite well. Good luck with future plantings!

      Reply
  16. Janet

    I have never had luck planting four o’clocks straight in the flower bed. This year I put them in pots & they’re doing great. I took a few & transplanted them into a bed, within a couple of hours they were drooping, I thought I did them in. I was almost in tears. Today (2 days later) they are looking healthy & perky. I hope yours are doing as well. I have 2 large pots that have started to bloom & a couple of other pots that haven’t bloomed yet. So far I have red, white & yellow flowers. I LOVE THEM!!! I’m so excited. I don’t know whether to keep them in pots or try to transplant them into the ground. I don’t want to kill them but I would love to get a large area of them. Coolest flowers ever -

    Reply
  17. Jane

    Stephanie,
    Thank you so much for your article! I adore my 4 o’clocks and look forward to seeing them come back each year. I do have to do some thinning early on because they are so prolific and will shade everything else out. Mine grow so tall that I have to tie them up. Next year I’m going to use tomato cages or maybe put some chicken wire in front to support them. They should grow through and mask the wires but still have the support. I have chickens in my backyard so I am limited on what I can grow back there. If they aren’t bothered by most animals, maybe I’ll try a few back there next year. I’ll start out small though so I don’t accidentally poison the chickens! With this terrible drought we’re having here in CA (I’m located on the Central Coast, Atascadero), 4 o’clocks are the perfect drought tolerant plant. I will try your suggestion to “chop and drop” in my vegetable garden at the end of the season , what a wonderful suggestion! Best wishes!

    Reply
  18. George Samko

    My mother got some seeds sent to her from a friend in Russia. She planted them and they grew quite well-had a great smell when they open. I got some seeds from her and planted them in my yard-in Ohio. They are doing great! I love them and they remind me of Mom, now that she has passed. We call them Mom’s flowers.

    Reply
  19. Charolette

    I love love love them- I have hot pink ones, and haven’t noticed a smell, so might try to get some other seeds to reap that benefit. Will try them for wound healing and report back. Never water, live in Los Angeles, and enjoy them as my reward for getting up early and making it through the day. I harvest the snails in my garden, and while they are in captivity chop off the tops of my four o clocks and feed it to them. I keep mine bushy and under two feet tall. The thing I love is that it is easy: to pull(tops off or roots, move), no thorns, no water, high show- for little effort, little everything. Can put it sun to shade. I even made a hanging basket where I pulled a bigger plant that was quite bushy at the base (because of my lopping), put in in chicken wire upside down with old nasturtium leaves acting like moss to hold dirt in, It grew into a lovely 360 globe(with trimming). And unlike my other hanging baskets lived when either I forgot to water, or my drip system failed. Only caveat is that if you have afternoon visitors for a barbecue, they think- what an interesting (boring) green plant. If they stay for drinks til sunset- they wonder where the flowers came from.

    Reply
    • Charolette

      Didn’t notice a significant difference for wound healing. Slightly itchy salve of squished leaves that turns to dried soothing mask on skin after a while… so I guess it acts as a green gel band aid. Eaten a few leaves in soup- nothing stellar to report.

      Reply
  20. john

    i can attest to the fact that this plant is edible, at least the leaves. it is also quite tasty steamed. i have a good sized plant in my greenhouse but do not remember planting it,thought it was spinach and ate it a couple times a week until the flowers came out and i assumed it would be bitter. interesting to find out all the things it contains. i finally had a neighbor come by and tell me what it was.

    Reply
  21. Terry Lusk

    I too have fond memories of four o’clocks from my childhood. They grew all along our back fence in Okla. We would watch the hummingbirds come to call every afternoon.
    I have them in several gardens now here in Dallas. I am in the midst of gathering seeds now, as several friends and my sister want to grow them as well. However, mine need quite a bit of water to stay upright and not wilt. I have been trying to find out if I can cut them down,wrap the plant in newspaper and gather the seeds separated by color. I have red, fuschia, pink, white and yellow. I also have 3 marbled in yellow/fuschia, white/fuschia and yellow/pink. But being as we have a cold front coming thru tomorrow, I’m going to have to try it anyway.

    Reply

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