It’s Time to Plant Four O’Clocks

Mirabilis jalapa

Did you know there’s a plant named after a time of day?

And while you may recall the rather old-fashioned four o’clock (Mirabilis jalapa) from visits to Grandma’s house, the name of the plant isn’t a reflection of when Grandma eats dinner.

Instead, the name indicates the time of day when the plant’s trumpet-shaped flowers open.

The flowers open in late afternoon, in response to a temperature drop. Nocturnal moths and other nighttime pollinators are attracted to their nectar.

A collage of different photos showing close ups of pink and yellow Four O'Clock Flowers.

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The flowers remain open throughout the night and into the morning, when temperatures rise and the flowers wilt.  Like daylilies, four o’clock flowers bloom just a single time, then wilt and eventually fall off the plant.

On cloudy days, the flowers open earlier and sometimes won’t close at all. Again, this is not due to a lack of light, but rather, to temperatures that are lower than usual.

Pink "passalong" four o'clock flowers creating a ground cover in garden beds.

Many gardeners find deadheading unnecessary because even the wilted blooms are attractive, and the plant blooms profusely with or without deadheading.

Let’s learn more about this shrubby, colorful perennial!

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As if “four o’clock” weren’t an interesting enough name, this plant also goes by “marvel of Peru,” a nod to its native South American habitat.

This flower has been cultivated for hundreds of years. In its heyday a couple of generations ago, it was a popular “passalong” plant in the southern United States, meaning neighbors and friends frequently shared the plant with each other.

Take a page from Grandma's book and plant lovely four o'clock plants in your garden:

Hardy and grown as a perennial in zones 7b-11, gardeners in other zones often grow these beauties as annuals. They will self-sow.

This bushy nocturne can grow to be one to four feet tall, and one to three feet wide. It is heat and drought tolerant, and is a favorite of hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies.

Wild critters know not to ingest the roots and seeds of this plant, because they are poisonous. If your pooch has a propensity for eating random yard objects, you may want to collect the dark, leathery, round seeds.

In the deep south, M. jalapa begins blooming in late spring, while northern gardeners will have to wait until mid-summer to catch a whiff of the highly fragrant blooms.

Color, Color, and More Color

If color is your thing, you’ve come to the right place.

Four o’clock flowers can be pink, red, magenta, lavender, yellow, or white.

Plant four o'clock to add a vintage touch to your landscape |

The flowers may be a solid hue, or they may have more than one color in a striped, splotchy, or spotted pattern.

You may see different combinations of shades and patterns on a single plant.

And to further brighten your days, the flowers of some varieties will change color as the plant matures.

Add vintage beauty to your landscape by planting four o'clocks:

So, you buy a lovely yellow plant at the garden store in May, and walk out one July evening (around the time Grandma’s cooking dinner) to discover you now have a plant with dark pink flowers!

That said, here are some varieties that, with luck, will remain true to color:

White Four o’Clock Seeds

Gardeners looking for a blaze of white might want to consider M. jalapa ‘Alba’, available from My Seedy Needs via Amazon.

Four o’Clock ‘Pink Trumpet’ Seeds

For a vibrant pink bloom, try ‘Pink Trumpet’ from Country Creek Acres, via Amazon.

Four O’Clock Bi-Color Mix Seeds

And if a kaleidoscope of patterned blooms is what you’re looking for, try this mixture from David’s Garden Seeds, available through Amazon.

Time to Plant

M. jalapa flowers best if it’s planted in full sun, but it will take some shade.

This plant prefers neutral to slightly acidic soil, and it is a heavy feeder, so make sure your soil is rich in organic material.

Four o'clock is an attractive addition to planters |

It prefers well-draining soil, and it does require regular moisture — the plants will go dormant if conditions are dry for too long.

You can plant seeds or divide existing plants by digging up your neighbor’s tubers.

Add a general-purpose fertilizer in early spring, and then feed once a month during the growing season if your soil needs a little boost.

Rust Be Gone

These plants are fairly pest free, but their foliage can be affected by rust.

A close up vertical image of the packaging of Bonide Organic Neem Oil for use on plants on a white background.

Bonide Neem Oil

For rust, remove affected foliage and treat the remainder of the plant with neem oil, such as this product from Bonide, available from Arbico Organics.

Time to Reminisce Over Dinner

Whether it’s eleven o’clock or one o’clock, or yes, even four o’clock, there’s never a bad time to plant these colorful beauties.

Order seeds or ask a neighbor for a “passalong,” and help to revive a plant from an earlier time that surely deserves a comeback.

Four o'clock adds color and charm to the garden |

Invite Grandma over for dinner some summer day, and prepare to be regaled by tales of how she grew these memory-instilling flowers in her own garden.

Do you remember four o’clocks from your childhood? Do you have some growing in your garden now? Tell us your tales of this well-loved antique in the comments section below.

Product photos via My Seedy Needs, Country Creek Acres, David’s Garden Seeds, and Safer Brand. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.

Photo of author
A former garden editor for a daily newspaper in Austin, Texas, Gretchen Heber goes through entirely too many pruners and garden gloves in a year’s time. She’s never met a succulent she didn’t like and gets really irritated every 3-4 years when Austin actually has a freeze cold enough to kill them. To Gretchen, nothing is more rewarding than a quick dash to the garden to pluck herbs to season the evening meal. And it’s definitely time for a happy dance when she’s able to beat the squirrels to the peaches, figs, or loquats.

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