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The `Marvel of Peru'

Several colours of bloom are found on the same plant.

THE FOUR O'Clock Flower is also commonly known as the "Marvel of Peru"; Mirabilis jalapa is a tuberous rooted, small herbaceous shrub about 50 cm in height. The plant has smooth, shiny, oval leaves and tubular flowers. The showy part of the flower is not the corolla but the modified calyx. Flowers are in the colour range of pink, yellow, white, scarlet and crimson.

The plant bears flowers in great profusion in the rainy season. Flowers open late in the afternoon, stay open in the night and close in the morning and that habit gave the plant the common name Four O'Clock Flower.

The plant can be grown in pots and in beds. It is generally seed sown and treated as an annual. However, its tuberous roots stay alive underground and sprout when the rains come. The plant produces hard coated black seeds which readily germinate.

Mirabilis jalapa belongs to Nyctaginaceae, the family of the ubiquitous Bougainvillea. The plant came from Central America and Peru.

We often find individual Mirabilis jalapa plants bearing different coloured flowers.

The latest to arrive are horticultural varieties bearing bi-coloured and mottled flowers.

Mirabilis jalapa with its long tubed and perfumed flowers, attracts sunbirds and moths. The fragrance of the flowers increases at night, attracting night flying insects.

Some gardeners feel that the name Mirabilis, meaning wonderful or admirable, was given to the plant not only because of its remarkable afternoon blooming habit but also because of its unusual characteristics like having a coloured calyx that replaced the corolla and its ability to bear different coloured flowers on a single plant. The beauty of the flowers definitely should have been a good reason for giving the plant that epithet.

Medicinal properties

Though an exotic, the plant has been credited with some medicinal properties in this country. It is used as a suppurative, laxative and cure for scabies and itches.

Warmed leaves coated with castor oil are applied to suppurate boils and reduce swellings. A paste of the leaves is applied to cure the irritation of scabies and itches. A paste of the roots mixed with milk works as a laxative but with violent cathartic effect compared to the purgative jalap Ipomoea purga from which the true and milder jalap is extracted.

The name of the plant in local languages is a literal translation of its English name Four O'Clock Flower — Nalu Mani Poo is Tamil for example. Expressing similar meaning it is also known as Anthimalari in Malayalam, Anthimalli in Tamil, Madhyana Mallige in Kannada and Chandrakantha in Telugu.

Text and picture by O.T. RAVINDRAN

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