Mirabilis jalapa…

Mirabilis jalapa behind the raised vegetable beds, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2022

It’s so hot. So hot for 5 more days. I am up around 7am watering the pots in the courtyard and the back, and by noon am reduced to jelly in the brain, watching the Tour de France in a dozing state. As for the rest of the garden, emergency watering only is happening, and I am crossing fingers for the rest. Oloron is on the whole, a kinder place to garden than Tostat. There we baked in an open, exposed situation. Here, the barn garden at the back has some tree shade from over the wall, and the courtyard takes the sun first on the house side, with some shade in the afternoon, whilst the other side plays the reverse game. So, the pots do get some time off from full sun.

The gingers are loving it. I had always kept these in very large pots in Tostat, for watering purposes really. But here, we had a massive stone trough in the courtyard which we filled with compost and the gingers went in- their first time altogether in a fairly deep and wide trough. they are blooming right now, not, of course, lasting in the terrific heat, but looking very pleased with themselves I reckon.

Hedychium gardnerianum, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2022
The ginger trough, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2022

Another plant that is also loving it, despite being in only a part sunny situation in the barn garden, is Mirabilis jalapa. I love this plant. Talk about easy- this plant personifies easy. I had this plant in the early days in Tostat, all over the place. In ignorance, I ripped masses of it out. But, later reading about it and realising my ignorance, I let it come back from a butchered state.

This plant is a wonderful thing. From small tubers, the easiest way to get it going and very cheap, planted in the Spring, this will make a 1.25m bush in height and width as soon as the temperatures warm up. Give it room and it may need some staking depending on the amount of heavy rainfall. In summer, when you need a good doer, masses of tubular flowers appear for a day at a time, and they keep on coming all summer long. It needs no additional water, even in a hot, dry spot, and it will also be happy in partial shade.

The flowers are described as perfumed, but, honestly, I can’t smell a thing, however I do have the world’s most hopeless nose. The small, round, shiny seeds drop out in the autumn and you probably won’t ever have to buy tubers again. It is pretty hardy too, contrary to what some sites say. It has always re-appeared for me in Tostat, and here in Oloron, no matter how cold or wet the winter has been. Tostat often had week long or longer periods of -10C and we get plenty of rain in the winter in Oloron. Maybe a heavy soil might trouble it?

The colours are very varied. Mine have always come out yellow, from the palest ceam to bright yellow to freckled yellow. I have one plant that does pink, but sadly not the deep pink or even red that grows up the road. I must get to know that neighbour.

It is considered a weed by some. No worries for me there, bring it on I say. We are revisiting so many of our 19th century ideas about what constitutes a weed, so Mirabilis jalapa deserves rehabilitation along with many others. If cow parsley can make it, why not Mirabilis?

Now for history buffs, this plant has a serious history. It may have been brought to Europe on one of Sir Francis Drake’s voyages in the 16th century, but before he got the idea, the Aztecs were growing it, using it pharmacologically and for eating, and also possibly making early plant selections based on colour. Linnaeus catalogued the plant in the eighteenth century but Mirabilis had been grown in Europe for 200 years before Linnaeus. In addition, Thomas Jefferson, in his garden at Monticello, received seed in 1812 of another Mirabilis, Mirabilis longiflora, and grew it there, and it is still grown there to this day. For more on the history and recognition of this wonderful plant, see Julian Raxworthy‘s interesting article.

Mirabilis longiflora, this cousin of Jalapa, looks rather amazing, and I have found some seed and will give it a go here as I can’t resist it. It is supposed to be heavily perfumed- maybe even I will catch a whiff.

Mirabilis longiflora, credit: Hillview Hardy Plants

In praise of….Mirabilis jalapa

Yellow Mirabilis Jalapa in bud, Tostat, July 2015
Yellow Mirabilis jalapa in bud, Tostat, July 2015

Mirabilis Jalapa, Tostat, July 2015
Mirabilis Jalapa, Tostat, July 2015

Mirabilis jalapa is a plant I have come to love, and I have the Chelsea Physic Garden to thank for it.  When we first came to the garden, this plant appeared all over the place and was pretty rampant.  I had never seen it before, and being a bit overcome with the scale of the gardening job facing me (whilst working, travelling to the UK, three children and all that) I ripped as much of it out as I could, reckoning that I needed to get on top of it. And I continued systematic destruction most years, but it always came back and bit me on the backside.

An embarassing number of years passed with me making no effort to discover what it was, and then, I was horrified to visit the Chelsea Physic Garden and see it growing in splendour there.  Not only that, but I discovered that the cultivation of this plant dates back to certainly 1596, and probably before, as an introduction from Mexico via Spain, when it was considered to be the most desirable plant to have in your garden by the cognoscenti. Dr. Alice le Duc, of Duke University, North Carolina, has studied the plant closely, and recorded that Thomas Jefferson grew it at his garden in Monticello.  Nowadays, it no longer grows in the wild in Mexico.  I was mortified by my thuggery.

Standing aside from my ignorance for a moment, and just considering it as a garden plant, it has a tremendous amount to recommend it. First, it flowers reliably and non-stop for about 6-8 weeks at the back end of summer when it’s easy for the garden to be a little on the bare side. Then, apart from the yellow that I have, it also flowers in a deep cerise pink, which is stunning coupled with the fresh, green foliage. Wise people say that it also flowers in several colours on one plant but I have never seen this. It will grow in full sun and some shade, although if in full sun, it will do better in an area with some moisture. Having said that, in very hot summers, it dies back with me and then re-appears when the rain returns.  Some say it has a scent, but I have to say my nose failed me again here.

It is a tall, slightly rangy plant, loosely growing upwards to about 1.5m with me, easily flattened by heavy rain, so needs positioning between other plants that will help it to stand up, or staking. I go for the former, as it fills in late summer gaps really well. In the UK, you might have to bring it in, like a dahlia and store it somewhere dry and cool, but you could probably pot it up and treat it like an overwintering geranium.  The RHS has it as an annual, but this plant can be much more than that if you take a little care over the winter.

With me, the corms survive where they are in soil, but they do start later for me probably.  It self seeds, so you can let it do that, or take seed, as I have from a neighbour who has the cerise-pink variety, and grow them on, the seeds germinate and roar up into substantial seedlings in late summer or early autumn, which you can just overwinter as above.

N.B. Label the pots, another weakness of mine, as the baby corms do an impressive imitation of being mud clots, and I have thrown plenty away not realising they were there.

It really is a pretty bombproof plant, and once you have got it going, it will stay with you for years.  Think about it, you will be growing something that was an Elizabethan delight, and had been in cultivation for 200 years before Linnaeus catalogued it in 1753. That’s pretty impressive.