Desert Four O’Clock — July 2009

four o'clock plant

   Perhaps the showiest wildflower on the Preserve, the desert four o’clock does its best to live up to its scientific name, Mirabilis multiflora, which translates to many-flowered marvelous (or wonderful, or astonishing) plant.  In full bloom it is eye-catching, to say the least.  Often found growing at the base of a juniper tree, this beauty also turns up in more open, less protected spots.  Other common names for this plant include wild four o’clock, Colorado four o’clock, showy four o’clock, giant four o’clock, and maravilla, the Spanish word for marvelous. 

   Desert four o’clock is a perennial that grows from a substantial, almost woody root and typically forms spreading clumps up to three feet tall and several feet wide.  Plants have several stems that tend to grow outward rather than upward.  Dark green somewhat heart-shaped leaves are arranged in an opposite pattern along the stems.  Each leaf may grow up to four inches in length on a rather short petiole.  Both stems and leaves are usually smooth, but sometimes have sticky hairs. 

four o'clock flower

   Showy, magenta flowers are typically produced from June to September, arising in small clusters from the leaf axils (point where leaf petioles are attached to the stem).  Each individual flower consists of five brightly colored sepals fused into a funnel shape with an open end about one inch across.  Five pollen-producing stamens stick out at slightly different lengths from the floral tube surrounding an even longer pistil.  The flowers open in the later afternoon and by nightfall emit a musky aroma to attract hawkmoths.  Once the sun is up the next morning, the flowers close. 

   Mirabilis multiflora is one of nine native species of Mirabilis in New Mexico and it belongs to the Nyctaginaceae (four o’clock) family.  Perhaps the most familiar member of this family is the ornamental Bougainvillea.  The Navajos boiled desert four o’clock flowers to produce a dye for wool and the Hopis used the roots to produce a medicinal tea for treating soreness, rheumatism and colic.  Any practical value of this plant pales, in my estimation, in comparison to the comfort and pleasure we derive from encountering such a welcome display of color in our summer landscape.

© 2009 Jerry Melaragno

PDF of this essay here.

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