Plants that tell the time


Mirabilis jalapa

Or should that be “Plants that tell the ‘thyme’”?

The Victorians loved their bedding plants, and parks and private gardens would have intricate designs made from flowers; including clocks and the royal coat of arms. But this blog isn’t about flowers displayed as a giant timepiece in your garden, although that would make an interesting change in a front garden.

In fact, in some ways it’s a misnomer, as all plants can tell the time; possibly better than many of us with our dependence on watches and mobiles for alarms to wake us up. Perhaps we should be using a dandelion clock? Not quite, blowing the seeds off a dandelion head is more accurate for increasing the spread of the dandelion than telling the correct time by the number of puffs it takes.

So when your dahlias start waking up an hour before the sun rises – everyday they’re in bloom, regular as clockwork – and you struggle with the snooze button…how do they do it? Quite clever really, there’s a pigment in the plant that reacts to the increase or decrease in the amount of daylight; well to be more precise, the lack of light or darkness of night. This enables plants to open their petals at sunrise and close them at sunset. It is also part of the system whereby plants live their lives; knowing when seeds need to germinate and when leaves should fall.

Some flowers are really accurate in their sun watching. Sunflowers track the course of the sun as it moves across the sky, turning those beautiful heavy heads of yellow to mirror the golden sun. There are many plants and flowers which seem to have a favourite time of day to open their blooms or close their leaves. A favourite of mine is the ‘Four o’clock plant’ or Mirabilis jalapa. This beauty has fragrant flowers in the evening, and can be grown as an annual or a tuberous perennial (like dahlias). It is a stunner at this time of year in particular, cheerfully throwing out petals of yellow, pink and cream all blending together on the same plant and even on the same flower.

Mirabilis jalapa also known as ‘Pride of Peru’ opens its flowers in the late afternoon – hence ‘four o’clock plant’. It was introduced into Britain around 1633 by John Tradescant the Younger and has been around ever since, although subject as many plants have been, to the vagaries of fashion. The Tradescants, father and son, were instrumental in discovering many plants from the Americas – the brave new world – and bringing them back to the homeland. As early plant hunters in the Americas, Russia and North Africa we owe many plants in our gardens to their discoveries. We also owe thanks to the gardeners and botanists who took the seeds and plants and grew or tried to grow these strange herbs and trees in their own gardens and estates.

The botanist John Gerard was said to have grown the ‘four o’clock plant’ in his London garden. However, this might have been a different member of the mirabilis family as Gerard died in 1612. Of course the Spanish had been to Mexico and Peru  in the late sixteenth century and could well have returned with some seeds, which, courtesy of Drake and the other English privateers of Elizabeth Tudor’s reign , could have found their way into English gardens.

One last note about those ‘Pride of Peru’ seeds: black and hard coated they are poisonous, so don’t mistake them for seeds of the onion family. Store them in a safe place and sprinkle around in spring and you will have your scented, colourful timepiece in the garden. As for thyme, planted with the ‘four o’clock plant’, it would add a decorative and evergreen contrast.

For planting ideas or a re-design of your garden, why not drop us an email to talk about it?


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