Louis Raymond experiments in his own gardens like

a mad scientist, searching out plants that most people have

never seen before & figuring out how to make them perform.- The Boston Globe

…Louis Raymond ensures that trees can grow in Brooklyn…

or just about any other place where concrete consumes

the dirt and skyscrapers shield the sunshine.- USA Today

 
 

NEW Trips to Take!

Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.

 
 
 
 

NEW Plants to Try!

Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.

 
 
 
 

New Gardening to Do!

Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.

 
 
 
 

Plant Profiles

The Best Season Ever: 'Limelight' Four O'Clocks

 Mirabilis-jalapa-Limelight-Rose-Perilla-frutescens-090613-640

 

This cultivar of four o'clocks can keep any garden from becoming too tame. The acid-yellow leaves and electric-pink flowers—which arise from narrow red trumpets—take no prisoners in mashing together colors that would otherwise run from one another screaming. Mirabilis jalapa 'Limelight' really is the plant for the limelight.

 

This plant's fearless palette is only more radical when seen in close-up. No, hot pink doesn't really go with acid yellow—and neither of them goes with red—but 'Limelight' is tireless in shouting otherwise. It achieves color harmony through the power of sheer assertion.

 

Mirabilis-jalapa-Limelight-Rose-Perilla-frutescens-090613-closer-640

 

The glitter of early-morning dew adds another note of Halloween-costume mayhem. 'Limelight' is the plant to grow when cheerful but relentless iconoclasm is what brings you joy.

 

 

Here's how to grow this high-performance tender perennial: 

Latin Name

Mirabilis jalapa 'Limelight'. Jalapa is a town in Mexico. For both words, the accent is on the second syllable: "Mih-RAH-buh-liss Ha-LAH-pa."

Common Name

'Limelight' four o'clocks

Family

Nyctaginaceae, the Bougainvillea family.

What kind of plant is it?

Tuberous subtropical perennial so fast-growing that it also succeeds as an annual. 

Hardiness

Zone 7-10. Above-ground growth endures only as long as temperatures remain comfortably above freezing, but the tubers are surprisingly hardy, resprouting even in Zone 7. Four o'clocks can be a reliable perennial, then, as far north as New York City and Cape Cod.

Habit

Bushy, self-branching, and self-supporting. Usually a bit taller than wide.

Rate of Growth

Fast.

Size in five months

Twenty-four to thirty inches tall and wide. Mirabilis flowers reliably its first season, but reaches maximum size its first year only with a long and hot growing season typical of Zone 8 and warmer.  

Texture

Mirabilis is striking in its first-glance similarity to impatiens in leaf shape, bushy habit, scale, coloring, and flower shape and size. But its habit is taller and more open and, hence, its texture is looser.

Grown for

its flowers: Brilliantly colorful, the throat of each trumpet-shaped flower is hot pink blended with a surprising amount of blue—a "cold" hot pink, in other words—while the outer surface of the trumpet's narrow base is cherry red. Reportedly, the blooms are fragrant. I keep forgetting to nose around to confirm. Next year! 

its long season of bloom: Depending on how early you can persuade plants to begin—see "How to handle it: Another option—or two!" for tactics—one month to four or five.

its foliage: Instead of the species' usual bland green, the leaves of 'Limelight' are acid yellow. The contrast with the flowers would be impossible but for the plant's tireless repetition. So many hot-pink flowers, so many acid-yellow leaves: In the face of such gleeful insistence, your eyes throw up their hands, so to speak. Pink and yellow (and red)? Of course! The unexpected camaraderie is helped by the "acidity" that all these hues share. What else is "hot" pink but acid pink?   

its woody tuberous roots, which are easier by far to dig up and overwinter than those of dahlias or even cannas.

its poisonous nature, top to bottom—seeds, too—which makes it unpalatable to browsers.

Flowering season

Mirabilis can be sown in situ. Flowering begins in about fourteen weeks, which, where Spring soil isn't warm until mid-May, means from late Summer to frost. Overwintered tubers that are planted in mid-Spring, when dormant or just barely sprouting, can push the start of flowering back into July. Sowing seeds indoors before frost is another way to bring about earlier flowering. See both "How to handle it" boxes. 

Color combinations

Its electric combination of acid yellow and hot pink would seem to be the daring unity that invites still more daring color cousins to share the table with 'Limelight'. After all, yellow goes with orange, so why not add that to the party? And orange goes with red, so what about more of that? Magenta goes with pink as well as blue, so why not those, too?

 

All around, the answer is no: The shocking pairing of acid yellow and hot pink doesn't begin a wider conversation at all. Indeed, it nearly precludes it. Aside from medium to dark green, which would be perceived as a neutral, only (to my eye) deeper shades of pink—magenta into burgundy, in other words—seem possible. And only when they, too are throbbingly saturated, which is the hallmark of any "hot" or "acid" color. All by itself, 'Limelight' flaunts such a vivid and even transgressive color three-way that, in close comparison, few other colors would escape looking either wan or unbearably jumpy.

 

See "Plant partners" for ideas.

Plant partners

'Limelight' is such a specialty act that only a few other plants are up to the challenge of playing in the same sandbox. Consider, also, that the flowering season of Mirabilis is unusually long, and spans the hottest Summer months. Neighbors that look exhausted by mid-July will only detract.

'Limelight' is so striking that it draws almost merciless attention to itself and everything else nearby. Only neighbors (such as oriental poppies or Spring bulbs) that disappear entirely by early Summer should be considered, not neighbors (such as most early-season perennials) that flower in June and then persist in recovery mode the rest of the season. 

 

I interplant Mirabilis with Colchicum. If you experiment to get the spacing right, there will be room between the Colchicum clumps' mounds of large Spring foliage to plant the Mirabilis tubers easily. The Mirabilis plants quickly fill much of the space left vacant in Summer by the then-expired

Colchicum foliage, and are still in flower in September, when the startling and large Colchicum blossoms emerge. Although you could plant white Colchicum, 'Limelight' is excuse enough to plant a cultivar, such as 'Poseidon', whose "chilly pink" has enough blue in it to go with the flowers of 'Limelight'.

 

Yet another challenge is that the shape of the flowers of some of the best toe-to-toe color partners—Pelargonium x hortorum 'Persian Queen', say, or Phlox paniculata 'Becky Towe'—are near replicas of those of 'Limelight'. Instead, riffle through the possibilities for hot pink and/or acid yellow for those flowers are not, more or less, an inch wide and with a narrow trumpet base. No geraniums or phlox then—nor impatiens. But what about

Buddleja davidii 'Evil Ways'Persicaria amplexicaulis 'Golden Arrow'?

Lespedeza thunbergii 'Gibralter'? Dahlia 'Marilyn Woodward'? Flowers of even the most deep-pink cannas ('China Doll' or Canna x ehemanii, e.g.) aren't likely to have enough blue in them, and will seem nearly salmon or cherry red.

There're likely to be some compatible cultivars of Hemerocallis. Stick with the purples and lavenders; in the context of 'Limelight', pink daylily cultivars will read as an unfortunate orange-salmon. Yes, the color saturation of the main portion of the daylily's petals could never be intense enough to be called "acid," but the flowers are so large by comparison, and their intense green-yellow throats successfully read as acid-yellow in the company of 'Limelight'. After the clumps have finished flowering, cut them down to an inch or so, foliage as well as flower stems. A fresh crop of foliage will soon emerge, and will remain a tidy (if neutral) bystander to 'Limelight' for the rest of the season.

It's easy to pair 'Limelight' with plants whose appeal doesn't rely on flowers; their performance is often season-long as matter of course, not by triumph of clever selection and just-in-time interventions. Choose those whose foliage is as exuberantly yellow as the 'Limelight' foliage, but in a contrasting size and shape, and borne by a plant of distinctly different habit and scale. Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Fernspray Gold', say, or Spiraea thunbergii 'Ogon'. Or check out the "Plant partners" section of Abelmos-chus manihot for plenty of plants whose foliage is so dark a burgundy that it's called burnt umber. Any of them could be a strong and exciting contrast to 'Limelight'.

Where to use it in your garden

Mirabilis is bushy and self-supporting enough to function as a knee-high hedge for the warm months. Space every foot. It would also thrive as a warm-weather follow-on amid Spring bulbs, as long as you've left enough room between their clumps to plant the large Mirabilis tubers safely.    

Culture

Sun, heat, and rich soil, in which case Mirabilis is comfortable with little or no supplemental irrigation. See both "How to handle it" boxes for more thinking.

How to handle it

Growing from seed: Start seeds indoors six to eight weeks before frost; sow a quarter to a half-inch deep. The large seeds are viable enough to direct-sow, and germination is quick and reliable, within five to thirty days. Transplant carefully: Mirabilis form few feeder roots that would, otherwise, hold the root ball together. Even better, then, to sow in peat pots.

How to handle it: Another option—or two!

Mirabilis forms large woody tubers of a surprising ebony-black hue. After the top growth has been frosted, lift the tubers carefully: Sometimes they grow as deeply as the largest carrots, while other times they are shaped like large lumpy fists. The tubers are surprisingly hardy, so there's no particular rush to dig. Fall is always full of must-do temperature-sensitive tasks; you can always put off digging your Mirabilis as long as the soil isn't frozen. Cut off the withered stems and store the tubers in a cool but frost-free location. In my experience, they are much more resistant than the tubers of either dahlias or cannas to drying out or rotting. Only the turnip-like tubers of Eucomis are easier to overwinter.

Tubers resprout easily, and grow quickly, so there's little benefit to starting them in pots in early Spring. They put out few feeder roots, so their root-balls would be fragile, making transplanting potted tubers into the garden tricky. Instead, plant dormant or just-sprouting tubers directly into the garden after the soil is warm and no longer muddy. Cover the tops with just an inch or so of soil, not the six inches that dahlias want. Supplemental watering isn't necessary. 

Quirks and special cases

The seeds are as poisonous as the foliage and flowers. No doubt, this is one reason Mirabilis can be such a prolific self-seeder. Use caution when planting Mirabilis where small children and pets are present. 

Downsides

Apart from the (remote, in my experience) possibility that animals or children will ingest the seeds or leaves), none.   

Variants

There are many cultivars of Mirabilis jalapa that, conveniently, can be bought as seeds and, sometimes, as plants. (Their ability to come true from self-seeding, however, isn't guaranteed.) The flowers of 'Alba' are pure white; those of 'Lemon Swirl' are sectioned radially—like pieces of pie, in other words—in white and pale yellow. Flowers in the 'Marbles Mix' are a jumble of anything from white to pink to yellow to apricot, which is wonderful if jumbling is your goal, or you want to save the tubers of specific plants to site them more distinctly next season. Flowers of 'Marrakesh' are, by comparison, a more restrained profusion of stippled and striped multi-colors of "just" yellow, orange, and pink.

Flowers of 'Salmon Sunset' are more restrained still, at least in terms of normal Mirabilis palettes: Pale orange petals change mid-field to a star-shaped zone of pink but then, at the central eye, change again, to a Kool-aid shade of orange-rose. Despite the name, 'Red Glow' is deep cherry rose, with a pink star around the eye like 'Salmon Sunset'; it could be the same as the more accurately named 'California Wild Magenta'. Many years ago but never since, Plant Delights Nursery listed 'Baywatch', a yellow-flowered form that they described as growing to six feet tall. Ah, to have had the foresight to have bought it. 

There are countless naturally-occuring variants—often among flowers of the same plant—with flowers that are striped or dotted in a, shall we say, care-free range of colors. Perfect for situations where novelty and exuberance trump all, as well as for a happy hunting ground for plants whose tubers you want to harvest, to carry over those individual inspirations from year to year. In this sense, Mirabilis is just like x Pardan-canda norrisii, whose flowers are as variable in both color and pattern. A generous planting of either plant in mixed colors is likely to contain one or two that are your new favorites, which you'll want to separate out and propagate into large, pure patches.

Despite the wide range of colors—white, pink, rose, yellow orange—that Mirabilis flowers bandy about with such freedom, the available hues are all "candy" shades: bright and sugary. To my knowledge, there are no cultivars with flowers in darker and, in all senses, deeper colors, such as burgundy or chocolate. There are also no blues or indigos, either. 

Several other Mirabilis species are worth seeking out. Those of M. longi-flora are strikingly long and narrow white trumpets, with a tiny raspberry eye. M. multiflora develops a taproot that is enormous and deep, even in comparison to those of these other Mirabilis species. (When growing undisturbed in subtropics, even roots of M. jalapa can weigh forty pounds.) Colorado four o'clock (M. multiflora) is a highly drought-tolerant native of the American Southwest, and can flaunt hundreds of magenta-pink flowers atop a thick tangle of growth the size of a mattress. It is one of the hardiest four o'clocks of all, to Zone 4 where it can enjoy low humidity, excellent drainage, and piercingly-bright sun in Summer. It's likely to be successful only in its native range: If the muddy Winter wet so typical of Midwest and Eastern gardens doesn't rot it, the dripping Summer humidity likely will.

The flowers of M. coccinea live up to their name. "Coccinea" means scarlet, and this species' flowers certainly are; to my knowledge, their color is unique in the genus. Alas, the plant is a desert native, like M. multiflora, and is unlikely to thrive outside that habitat.  

 

Mirabilis nyctaginea is likely to be happy in midwest and eastern American gardens: This species is native to central Illinois. True to its Mirabilis

worldview, its flowers are magenta; plants are reported as growing to four feet tall. 

Availability

On-line.

Propagation

By seed. Although parsnip-like Mirabilis tubers don't form clusters like those of dahlias or cannas, they sometimes develop another leg. If you have a sharp knife and a steady hand, you can separate the two legs by cutting up from (gulp) crotch to crown. Do this in Spring. It's good to wait until you can just see the green bumps of emerging shoots, and orient your cut so that each leg has a few of its own. Let the cut tubers dry for a day before planting, so the exposed inner surface can callus.

Native habitat

Mirabilis jalapa is believed to be native to the Peruvian Andes, and has been cultivated world over for centuries. 'Limelight' is an old cultivar, and was mentioned in a seed catalog from 1889.

 
 
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