Monday, September 3, 2012

The Marvel of Peru

One of the summer flowers that blooms well up until the Shire's frost date
is the four o'clock, mirabilis jalap; also called the Marvel of Peru, 
or in French, la belle de nuit, "the beauty of the night."
I have always loved four o'clocks for their sweet fragrance
and peculiar habit of opening only in the late afternoon.
But another idiosyncrasy of the plant 
is its ability to bloom in several different colors from the same root.
For an image of yellow four o'clocks, click here:
There are also hundreds of images of four o'clocks on Google Images.

A pleasant four o'clock once grew along my neighbor's fence, 
and I always liked seeing the flower's pink and yellow trumpets 
peeking through the pickets.
But eventually they sold the house, 
and the new owners pulled the plant out one spring,
unaware that it was an old-fashioned flower with a long history,
and not a noxious weed. 

I always look up flower names 
in the Alice M. Coats book, Flowers and their Histories,
 because I learn more from her than I do from an internet search, 
which often tends toward redundancy.
Coats says that the seeds of the mirabilis 
were brought to Spain from Peru in the last half of the 16th century,
which would have been in the decades immediately after Pizarro 
and the Spanish Conquistadors defeated the Incas. 
By the time the old English herbals were being written,
four o'clocks were already a staple of English gardens.
Herbalist John Gerard was so impressed with the mirabilis 
that he considered the nickname Marvel of Peru to be inadequate, 
preferring instead "Marvell of the World." 
Coats also tells us that the four o'clock flowers' late afternoon opening is so reliable,
that in the Malay Archipelago, once called the East Indies, 
gardeners always planted at least a few four o'clocks in conspicuous spots
and used them as sundials or clocks.

Gerard would dig the roots each autumn
and store them in "a butter firkin filled with sand."
Firkin is definitely a word one doesn't hear anymore, 
and Coats offers no explanation. 
I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary: 
a firkin is an archaic term for a cask equivalent in capacity to a quarter of a barrel.
Firkins were used for keeping butter, fish, liquids, 
and in Gerard's case, four o'clock roots.

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