Fabulous Four O’clocks

Mirabilis multiflora - Desert Four O'clock @XG 9aug05 LAH 080 printIn a field crowded with contenders, I have a new favorite wildflower. This plant is incredible—large, flashy, tough, gorgeous. What more could you want? Best of all, it’s thriving in my yard. I’m in love.

Most four o’clocks are sedate, old-fashioned garden flowers, something you’d see surrounding a cottage, combined with hollyhocks, old roses, and other grandmotherly plants. The Desert Four O’clock (Mirabilis multiflora) is like the grandma who dies her hair brilliant pink, wears short skirts with black fishnet stockings, and rides a Harley.

The perennial plants die back to the ground every winter, but rapidly spread up to four feet wide (and about 18 inches tall) during our short growing season. Their rounded leaves are green with a blue-gray cast to them, and would be attractive in any case, but it’s the flowers that make this plant scream “grow me!” Over much of the summer, the foliage serves merely to highlight the dozens of passionate pink blossoms. Given that each flower is two inches across, the result is breathtaking.

Typically, a plant that elicits such covetous tendencies would be a prima donna, difficult to obtain and frustrating to grow. Not this Mirabilis. It’s native to Colorado’s high plains, so it wants to grow here! (It’s also known as the Colorado four o’clock, although it is found across the southwestern United States and into Mexico.) According to High Country Gardens, the plants are hardy in zones 4 through 8.

Years ago a friend gave me a few seeds gathered from her own plants. They sat in my seed box until this spring, when I suddenly decided to plant them. Most I scattered on the dry hillside next door (with no results yet), but a few I stuck into a couple of 2-inch pots full of potting soil. These germinated. They grew. In late June, noticing substantial roots emanating from the drainage holes in the pots, I transplanted the two seedlings into the parking strip between the street and our sidewalk. Hiding them between two decorative boulders so no one would step on them, I snugged an inch of shredded bark mulch over their roots, and walked away. That was it. No supplemental irrigation. No fussing.

Mirabilis multiflora - Desert Four O'clock @XG 9aug05 LAH 103Here we are in August, a few weeks later, and they’ve filled the space and then some. Best of all, they’re blooming! While my new plants won’t reach their full growth in this first year, I have great expectations that they’ll steal the show from now on. Even better, the rabbits are leaving them alone. Unbelievable! (Four o’clocks are also supposed to be deer resistant.)

The key to growing desert four o-clocks is neglect.Find a spot in full sun where  the sprinklers don’t reach. Irrigation will kill them. (Their huge tap root might have something to do with their ability to do just fine on ambient rainfall.) My plants established quickly in the spring-damp soil and have received no extra water since then.

And while my soil is amended with a few inches of compost (we were dealing with the highly disturbed, nasty subsoil left by the builder), these plants are perfectly happy with our native sand or clay.

As I mentioned, I started my plants from seed. Germination probably would have been faster if I’d nicked the seed coat to speed up water intake, but they still came up within two weeks of sowing. Another option is to buy started seedlings. I was surprised and delighted to see them for sale in 4-inch pots at several local nurseries. If you choose to go this route, don’t wait too long next spring; they sold out quickly. They’re also available online.

Any companion plants will need to survive the same dry conditions, plus be large enough to compete with a plant that can sprawl. Russian sage, fernbush (Chamaebatiaria millefolium), and sand cherries (especially Prunus besseyi ‘Pawnee Buttes’) are possibilities, or copy Mother Nature and surround the flowers with a grassland.

4 thoughts on “Fabulous Four O’clocks

  1. I helped a friend dig one out one year, and we got about two feet down and the root was as thick as my bicep! We finally had to just break it off . (She was going to be planting a tree where the plant was.)

  2. Pingback: Watering Trees | Mountain Plover

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