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Four o'clocks add a beautiful scent to the evening

Four o'clocks bloom in the evening hours to release their incredibly fresh scent. John Zvirovski / The Sun

Any plant that has a name like The Marvel of Peru needs to be in my garden! Not only does it sound pretty, but it also sounds so exotic! Many people are more familiar with its common name of four o’clocks.

Four o’clocks have been around for centuries and are native to the tropical regions of Peru. As the beauty became more known, it was dispersed into the European countries, followed by many of the rest.  

I remember four o’clocks while growing up near a neighbor’s house who had them growing along the south side each and every year. I used to look at each trumpet-shaped flower to see how many different colors I could find. They typically bloom in shades of crimson, pink, lavender, yellow and white. I have also seen orange and bicolored flowers such as yellow splashed with red and white splashed with crimson or pink. In some rare cases I have even seen numerous colors splashed within one flower.  

Four o’clocks derive their name from the time of day their flowers open. In all reality, they do not miraculously open at 4 p.m., but they do bloom during the evening and night hours, only to close up once the morning sun appears. If the following day begins cloudy, the flowers will remain open until the sun shines.

This plant use to be planted frequently in years past, but they have faded from most of our gardens today. They have never lost their appeal to me as I have always enjoyed their delicate flowers, and when in bloom, they emit a heavenly scent. This scent attracts the hummingbirds and the sphinx moths to feed on their nectar during the evening. Many times the sphinx moth is mistaken for the hummingbird as it has a similar flight pattern of flapping its wings quickly and being able to hover and go in reverse. Any plant that I can add to the garden to attract hummingbirds is welcome in my yard!

Four o’clocks are one of the easiest annuals to grow, and if you have enough room for them, make a great addition to any garden. The seeds are brown to black in color with an oval shape. Many people choose to soak the seeds overnight before planting them to aid in germination, but I find if you direct seed them in the ground when it is warm and keep them moist, they will emerge within five to seven days. The seed leaves are large and are followed by their true leaves that are pointed with nearly a heart-shape to them in deep green. They prefer full sunlight, but will bloom in semi-shade also. The more shade the plant receives, the leggier the plant will become. They can tolerate drought conditions as the fleshy roots hold an abundance of moisture, however unstressed plants will perform much better in the long run. The plant will grow to about 3 feet tall to the same in width with a dense branching structure. Within 60 days from planting, each branch will terminate in a cluster of buds. Once the buds begin to bloom, they will continue until the first fall frost. In the southern regions of our country, this plant will act as a perennial and come up year after year. In our climate, the carrot-like root can be dug up and stored like a dahlia root during winter and replanted in the springtime. I prefer to just collect the seed as it takes up less space and is just as productive.  

History has shown that all parts of the plant were used for various purposes. The flowers were used to create a crimson dye that was edible in many different foods and also used for cakes and jellies. The root was dug and used as a diuretic and also used in the treatment of dropsy. The leaves were used as an anti-inflammatory and when crushed and boiled, were used to treat abscesses.  Often times the leaf juices, themselves were used to treat various wounds. As with many plants, these are where many of our treatments for disease derive from and also are the fundamental root of many of our medications that we use today.

Oftentimes we are enthralled by the beauty of plants and their wonderful flowers, but also remember that numerous types will emit the scents we long for in our gardens. Not only for our own enjoyment but to bring in the hummingbirds, moths, and butterflies that are equally enjoyable to observe.

Don’t let this wonderful annual fade from our gardens forever, plan on planting some in your landscape next year for a season of enjoyment. In a few weeks the seeds will begin to mature on the plants so you can begin to harvest them for planting next year. I always choose seed from my favorite color plants, but don’t be surprised if the plants you grow next year have more than one color flower on a plant. It has happened many times before and is just another of life’s wonderful little mysteries in the garden.