While I am at Southport Flower Show the chances are that some Dutch conman will be selling a variety of ‘bulbs’ to unsuspecting showgoers. ‘He’ has been at the shows for years and I guess that as far as the shows are concerned he pays for his pitch and the ‘plants’ he sells are alive. I have even seen ‘him’ (there may be more than one ‘him’ and there may well be a ‘her’ too) at Bloom in Dublin. The reason I am venting my spleen is that ‘he’ is selling a collection of roots of plants that, while they would be fine if planted in March, stand little chance of growing to maturity when planted now even though they look healthy, thanks to the wonder of cold storage. ‘He’ will not be alone in selling lily bulbs that have been stored cold for months. And this would not worry me if the plants were then either a) grown under cool glass or b) discarded after they have bloomed. After all how else would you be able to buy cut flower lilies all year round without cold-stored bulbs. But ‘his’ wares will probably have long shoots on them because they have been travelling round the shows in ambient temperatures and they may not manage to bloom before the frosts when ordinary gardeners get them home.
But worse still (to a pedant like me) is that ‘he’ will be selling ‘flowering ferns’ and ‘Japanese Wonder flowers’. Ferns don’t flower – period. So what are these? The long roots with reddish shoots on the ends are Inacarvillea delavayii, a perfectly good plant but why sell it as a fern? But what really makes my blood boil is the ‘Japanese Wonder flower’. I think this is because the plant in question (Mirabilis jalapa) already has enough exciting common names and even the botanical name is pretty cool*. Marvel of Peru or four o’clock plant has been good enough for years and since the things come from Peru what idiot thought to suggest they come from Japan!
I also feel a bit protective about the plant because I think it is great. Now I know it can become a bit over-fond of itself in mild climates but for those of us in temperate lands where the roots do not always survive the winter and where its cultivation require a modicum of effort I think it’s a gem of a plant.
It is easiest grown from seed (and that avoids giving money to that Dutchman**). The seeds are large (caper-sized) and can be sown singly in pots or cells, in warmth in spring. The seedlings are large and easy to look after if protected from frost until planting out (in late May in the UK and Ireland). Planted in good soil in full sun they quickly make large, bushy plants 60cm high and wide. The foliage is narrowly heart-shaped, slightly cupped and rich green and the flowers appear at the ends of the shoots in small clusters.
The colour of the flowers varies from white, though yellow, pink, red and orange but what makes the plant remarkable is that two blooms on the same stem can be different colours. In fact many seed strains offer plants with flowers that are striped with two contrasting colours or solid-coloured flowers of two hues on the same plant.
I have grown some of these this year and may show them later but for this post it is ‘Red Glow’ which is a wonderful (but stable) mix of two red hues shaded together in one bloom.
The blooms are trumpet-shaped and about 3cm across. Right now there are lots of flowers and they will continue to bloom till the first frost. But if I am honest the flowers are not quite big enough for the size of plant to be really showy.
Two other little tricks give the plant wow factor. The name of four o’clock plant is very apt because the blooms stay shut most of the day and open in late afternoon, closing in the morning. I guess you could say its an ideal commuter’s plant. And secondly, the flowers smell divine. If you grow several together on a sunny patio or in a pot by the door you will really appreciate the sweet scent of this pretty plant.
Each flower makes a large green seed (really a fruit) that turns black when mature, so is easy to collect. Or you could either mulch the roots in winter or maybe dig them up, store the carrot-like root in sand till spring and replant them.
Geoff’s rating 10/10
Garden rating 8/10
* mirabilis means marvellous and jalapa is a place name in South America
** I have nothing against the Dutch in general by the way – they are lovely people 🙂