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Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Mirabilis jalapa: The Four O'clock or Marvel of Peru, a plant that can tell the time!

I was first introduced to Mirabilis jalapa as a child in Samoa by Aunty May Sa'aga who lived across the road from us and had some in her garden. She kindly gave me some seeds when I begged for some. I was skeptical about the story about them opening at four o'clock but on a latter observation realized that they did indeed open around four o'clock.

Mirabilis jalapa Four-O'clock / Marvel of Peru
In Samoa they pretty much consistently opened around that time but in Bristol, England I have found that they seem to open a bit later. Mind you there are two variables which might affect the ones I have at the moment. The first being that I have them indoors and the amount of sunlight hey get might not be adequate although they do get a full dose of the afternoon sun. The second factor is that summer days here are longer than in Samoa and at the moment it is sometimes still light around nine or ten o'clock.
Mirabilis jalapa Four-O'clock / Marvel of Peru

This is probably the critical factor, because these are vespertine flowers. Therefore the time in which they open has more to do with the cycle of the sun than human time keeping. They definitely do not heed any daylight savings time either. After all they are pollinated by moths, so opening too early is pointless. That said I must admit that my observations of the opening times of Mirabilis jalapa in Samoa was not exactly governed by any strict scientific method let alone over different times of the year.
Mirabilis jalapa Four-O'clock / Marvel of Peru
It would be interesting to find out what times they do actually open over a 12 month period and to compare this with opening times in other parts of the world. I suppose you would need to include readings of sunlight as well.

The seeds I got from Aunty May gave me a handful of plants but I ended up with many more because they flowered profusely and produce lots of seeds which from memory were quite viable. The seed starts of green and turns black after which it falls off. You can pick them before they fall off but you need to wait until the whole seed has turned black otherwise, if there are any green spots left then it has not fully matured.

Unfortunately at the time I had a couple ducks that another neighbor Uncle William Arp gave to me in exchange for a bag of chicken feed from my parents. It turned out that the luscious green leaves of my Four-o'clocks were quite tasty to two feathered connoisseurs of green leaves and on the morning that they had discovered this I came out to find every single plant completely stripped of all its leaves.

Strangely, although I recently came across some warnings about the plant being toxic, I cannot recall the ravenous ducks suffering any ill effects after their illicit predawn feast.

In Bristol I came across some being sold in a store, except in this case it was not seeds but the corm. I grew some in pots that I placed in windows while others I left outside on the roof.I later bought some seeds through Amazon.

Binomial Name: Mirabilis jalapa
Common names: Marvel of Peru, Four O'clock (English); (Dutch); Belle-de-nuit, Merveille du Pérou (French); Wunderblume (German); Bella di note(Italian): Dondiego de noche, Donpedros Periquito, Marvilla o Cavellina (Spanish)

Taxonomic hierarchy: 

Kingdom: Plantae - Plants
Subkingdom: Viridaeplantae – Green plants
Infrakingdom: Streptophyta – Land plants
Superdivision: Embryophytea – 
Division: Tracheophyta – Vascular plants, tracheophytes
Subdivision: Spermatophytina – Spermatophytes (seed plants)
Infradivision: . – .
Class: Magnoliopsida – Diocotyledons
Superorder: Caryphylanae
Order: Caryophyllales –
Family: Nyctaginaceae – 
Genus: Mirabilis – 
Species: Mirabilis japala

  • I am using the taxonomical classification system used by ITIS (Intergrated Taxonomic Information System). I have decided to use this system in order to avoid confusion as well as because it offers a comprehensive hierarchy from kingdom right through to subspecies whereas other sources only go as far as order or  provide the names of some of the higher taxonomical ranks but only indicate "unclassified" rather than providing the rank.
  • When and where possible I will endeavour to include alternatives classifications although  I may limit this to occasions where an opportunity arises to discuss the reason for the different classifications.
  • Taxonomical data used in this post was retrieved [February 11 2015], from the Integrated Taxonomic Information System on-line database,



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  1. WOW I'm fascinated to have learnt that these 'clever' plants are pollinated by moths!! I do remember these flowering mirabilis jalaba in Samoa. I thought there were also purple ones?? I enjoyed reading also how you started with some seeds from Aunty May Sa'aga! Nice!
    Since you can grow them in Bristol England I wonder if I can grow the MJ in Wellington NZ? Thank you for the informative read! - lekacampbell

    1. Thanks for your kind comments. Yes when I see those flowers now they always remind me of Aunty May Sa'aga as well as my marauding ducks from Uncle William Arp.
      The corms I got were planted inside during winter and then some were put outside while I kept others inside. I am not sure if Wellington would cold enough for frost.
      According to what I have read if you leave them out in winter the plant will die but if the corm is deep enough in the ground it will send new shoots up come spring. Some people dig the corms up and keep them like you would bulbs for replanting the next year.
      I'm not sure if the plants grown from seeds would have grown corms big enough in one season to survive a winter that kills of the rest of the plant.
      I am going to leave the ones I have outside out this winter to see what happens come spring.
      One thing I can say for sure is that they need full direct sunlight and lots of it. The plants I had indoors grew and flowered but the stems were long and spindly and I had to put stakes in to keep them from falling over and breaking. The ones I planted outside (like the ones I had in Samoa) grew much thicker sturdier stems and lots of dark green leaves. They are much more robust and healthy than the ones I have indoors which had only some direct sun.
      I hope you have fun growing yours. They come in different colours as well as multicolored ones. If you get single colours you can have fun crossing them to see what combinations you get.