I have been around long enough to know that this isn't forever and that each one of these days is precious. Until the solstice, just a weeks away, each day stretches a little longer and I am greedy for every minute. Up before dawn most days. At the Lake to watch the sunrise whenever I can.
This year my mother wants four o'clocks for her small-but-jam-packed garden, so I went to Anton's, the neighborhood garden center that's actually in a neighborhood. Now in its second century (Anton took over the business 70 years ago), Anton's opened when this area was still "out in the country" and survives as a beloved zoning relic. Street parking only. If any place were to have an old-timey flower like a four o'clock, it would be Anton's. And they did, although only a few. I took two.
As the name suggests, four o'clocks bloom in late afternoon providing pollinators—who have spent the long day visiting and revisiting all the other of flowers in the garden dozens of times hoping for one last tiny sip of overlooked nectar—with a bountiful tea time snack. Hummingbirds are said to be particularly fond of them. Each plant can have flowers of different colors. Each flower can be more than one color. They smell good, too.
Mirabilis jalapa has become a global favorite. First the flowers spread from Peru throughout the Americas, then starting in the 1500s were imported into Europe and Asia. Beyond their sheer loveliness, four o'clocks are popular in folk medicine and have also shown potential for bioremediation, removoing pollutants from soil.
That last talent would have been unexpected side benefit of Project Carol Four O'Clock, a small-scale, guerilla gardening campaign to beautify the scruffy street corners of Chicago. Several years ago my friend, the eponymous Carol, would go out with a flat of plants stashed in the back her vintage VW Beetle and drive around looking for forlorn patches of weedy green in need of a little love. Since four o'clocks can be prodigious self-seeders, perhaps her long-ago acts of gardening goodness live on, a legacy of color and scent bursting into unexpected bloom at the end of a long, hot summer's day, the audacity of irrepressible color bounded by sidewalk and street.
Moonflowers (Ipomoea alba) are also late-day bloomers, but only come into full gardenia-scented lusciousness once the sun gives way to the moon. Each enormous, creamy white flower lasts but a single evening. As tropical natives, they wait for the hot, humid nights of July and August to unfurl their magnificent blooms to the arias of amorous katydids and cicadas high up in the trees.
For the last couple of years I have planted moonflowers from seed. These are big garbanzo bean-size seeds that spend weeks developing roots before sprouting enormous cotyledons. For quite a while that's all there is to see. Then one day some heart-shaped leaves appear and it's off to the vine-growing races. Up the lamp post! Across the railing! Onto the trellis!
All that drama is still months away. We are just at the beginning. Isn't that wonderful?
• "The Gentleness of Summer" | Asbury Street Sessions | Dave & Al (audio)