Planting Mystery with the Pride of Peru

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“Girls, hurry! You don’t want to miss the Grand Opening!” I heard my grandmother call late one summer afternoon.

Visits with Gran were always an adventure. She loved nature and was a gardener, a hiker and a rock hound. My sister and I were never bored when we visited my grandmother. Being a retired teacher and talented storyteller, Gran had the ability to get our attention. The magic of a flower blooming in the afternoon was a “Grand Opening” to her and a curiosity to us.

Gran explained the mysteries of a plant named the Pride of Peru as it opened before our eyes. The Pride of Peru, or Mirabilis jalapa, is most often called the four o’clock plant. It opens at sunset and closes at sunrise. Gran explained that it also opens on cloudy days. She said the plant’s bright, tropical-looking multicolored flowers are nature’s way of cheering up a dull day.

The colors range from yellow, red, pink and white, to purple and mixed color blossoms. One of Gran’s plants had bi-colored blooms with red on one side of the bloom and white on the other side. They reminded me of peppermint candy. Individual flowers are trumpet shaped, and are about an inch across at the end and two inches long.

“Why does this plant open at four o’clock?” I asked, anxious to solve one of the mysteries of the plant.

“The plant is responding to the temperature of the air, not the time of day,” my grandmother replied, warming to her topic.

“Four o’clock flowers have a fragrance that attracts hummingbirds and butterflies even when they are closed. The flowers are a puzzle because they have no petals. The showy part is part of the sepal, which in most plants is green and leaf-like. It’s rare not to have petals in the plant kingdom,” concluded Gran, as she pulled cotton drawstring bags containing seeds from her pocket.

“Every seed holds a surprise,” Gran told us as she handed out seeds for us to plant our own Pride of Peru plants. Since we lived in the South, there was still plenty of time left in the growing season to plant our seeds. Gran told us they grow fast and we wouldn’t have long to wait. She also said the seeds we planted might be a different color than the mother plant. That would be the surprise.

With magic seeds in our possession, we went home to plant our own mystery. We dug up the soil next to the fence in our backyard and carefully placed our black oval-shaped seeds 12 inches apart in the earth. Gran said they would be large and bushy and would need plenty of room between the plants. We were careful not to bury the seeds too deep, just as our grandmother instructed. We watered our seeds and waited impatiently.

Sure enough, in a few days, the new plants began to peek out of the soil and grow a little bit every day. As we watched, they grew bigger and bigger, and in a few weeks, we had bushy plants with blooms that opened in the late afternoon.

Gran came one afternoon to watch our flowers open. She brought tea and cookies, and we had a Grand Opening party. I believe that was the day my love for gardening began.

This morning, as I was working at my potting bench, I saw an old drawstring bag on the back of a shelf. I was reminded of the Pride of Peru plants growing in abundance next to my back fence.

My granddaughter will be visiting this afternoon. It might be time for another Grand Opening. /G

When she’s not painting or digging in the dirt, Ginny Richardson teaches second grade in Lebanon, Tennessee, where she lives with her husband, Jim.

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