Showy Four O'Clock
Common Name: Showy four o'clock , Mirabilis multiflora, (mee-rah-bi-lis mul-te-flora). Mirabilis is from Latin meaning "marvelous" or "wonderful," a reference to the beauty of this plant. Multiflora means "many-flowered" in reference to the numerous flowers that can cloak the plants.
Family: Four o'clock family (Nyctaginaceae). This family contains 28 genera and about 250 species. Most are distributed in the tropics and subtropics of both the northern and southern hemispheres. The largest genus of the family is Mirabilis with about 60 species.
Description: Showy four o'clocks are perennial plants that die back to their roots each year. These plants form large clumps from multiple stems, are 1-3 feet tall and as broad or broader. The dark green leaves are opposite and are round to egg-shaped -- at times they appear heart-shaped -- with short petioles. The leaves and stems may be either smooth or have sticky hairs. The leaves vary from 3/4-7 inches long and are often pointed at the tip.
Flowers: Many flowers are borne in small clusters in the leaf axils -- the space where the leaves join the stem. The funnel-shaped flowers protrude from a papery floral cup which is made up of greenish bracts (modified leaves) that resemble floral sepals. The flowers are magenta in color and are 1- 3 inches long and about 1 inch across. Four o'clocks do not have petals, rather they have colorful sepals which are petal-like in appearance and fused together into a funnel-shaped flower.
Like the species name suggests, the plants can have a wealth of blossoms covering the plant from April to September, especially after rains. The fruit is a small dark seed that is often held in the papery floral cup, long after the blossoms have faded.
As the common name indicates, four o'clocks bloom in the late afternoon and are open throughout the night. They may not open exactly at 4:00 p.m. and can open in the morning on cloudy days -- the clouds fool them into thinking it’s later in the afternoon. The flowers release a musky aroma several hours after opening. This attracts hawkmoths, the primary pollinator of these flowers. A hawkmoth can unfurl its long proboscis to suck up nectar that forms at the base of the funnel-shaped flower. In the morning, bees may linger in the floral tube, but they have little to do with pollination. The bees are more often after the pollen for themselves.
Habitat: Showy four o'clocks grow in pinyon-juniper woodlands or in blackbrush shrublands. They can grow on the ground or in small crevices in rock formations where there is suitable soil. The plants are found from 2,300-7,500 feet in elevation, in the southwestern states, southern California and Mexico.
Native Uses: Native Americans have used the plant for dyes or medicinal properties, both in prehistoric times and modern day. The Navajos boiled the flowers to make a light brown or purple color for dying wool. The Hopis used the roots of older plants to make a blood-strengthening tea for pregnant women. Teas were also made to treat colic, eye infections, muscle soreness, body swellings, rheumatism and indigestion. The Acoma and Laguna pueblo tribes dried the leaves for smoking material, and some say the plant has a sedative property.
-- Text & Photos By Damian Fagan
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