Light and dark: Mirabilis jalapa – Belle de nuit


My neighbour and I were very happy to discover this plant growing at the foot of the wall of the garage that we share, and since then we’ve been looking after it tenderly. It’s an unusual flower coloration for our village – almost all others are red or yellow, and you can have both on the same plant.   It seems to love cracks at the edges of roads or pavements, growing up fast in mid to late summer and in full bloom at the moment. The plants grow from tubers, like dahlias, and can also reseed, thus quickly becoming invasive once established. It’s a garden escapee, now naturalised.

One English name is the four o’clock flower, and the blooms do indeed open late in the afternoon –  earlier on grey days  –  and stay open all night to attract moths. The plant originates in Peru, and this nocturnal habit is an adaptation which is more common there or in Mexico (Jalapa is a Mexican town), where temperatures can be too hot for a flower in the daytime.

The plant has some significance to botany since it was studied by Carl Correns, who was one of the rediscoverers of Mendel’s genetic laws in 1900. Correns researched into the causes of the variegated leaves of some plants of M. jalapa and showed that the white mottling was a characteristic inherited from the seed (‘mother’) plant, rather than from the pollinating plant.  This was the first demonstration of cytoplasmic inheritance: the fact that all sexually reproducing organisms from pine trees to humans inherit DNA from both male and female parents, but can also inherit factors in the cell from the female line only.  In the case of plants, this inheritance includes the cellular organelles called chloroplasts containing the chlorophyll which turns sunlight into sugars, and gives all plants their green colour. The fact that some cells in leaves of M. jalapa lose their chloroplasts and their colour is due to such a cytoplasmic factor.

Light and dark. I’d like to play At the dark end of the street (1967), sung by James Carr (1942-2001). He was a powerful and moving soul singer, and this performance of a song written by Chips Moman and Dan Penn is his masterpiece – one of the few records I think of as perfect, unimprovable.  Unfortunately Carr seemed unable to cope with his success in the late 60s, and made few further records.   For the rest of his life he engaged in a long struggle with bipolar disorder.

Coming up next: a bunch of roses.



Filed under Uncategorized

5 responses to “Light and dark: Mirabilis jalapa – Belle de nuit

  1. I see this plant every day by our garage door, but I’m glad of your photo giving a close-up of its pretty variegations. It looks so delicate, yet it’s such a survivor growing between the wall and the pavement where there’s apparently no soil at all, and the red and yellow versions of it growing on the path to our garden too, again between concrete path and stone wall. Like the miniature fig tree that has sprung up by the house wall. Perfect (as you say) song recording too and sadly appropriate to the singer.

  2. re: james carr . . . a self-interested comment . . .

    some years ago, i put together a compilation album of adulterous soul songs, titled If Loving You Is Wrong: 20 Cheatin’ Heartbreakers

    here is a link to the sleevenotes

    two points

    1. it’s not the final version – there might be a small errror or two

    2. re: james carr – there is a man singing with him . . .
    a) who is it? dan penn, i’m fairly sure
    b) after my notes had been published, given the two men singing, i asked my friend phil chevron of the pogues (who among many other achievements, is a gay irishman) if there was a possible gay reading of this) . . . ‘of course,’ he said, ‘it was always the last song in clubs . . .’

    • Great sleevenotes/thesis on a fascinating genre. I was just thinking, listening to the song again, how much space the lyrics leave for the imagination. Is the other person married? Underage? White? From the other side of the tracks? There’s no clue. We are just given the emotions (fear, urgency, doom) all suggested by the settings and action, such as it is. Very good songwriting. I first heard it from Ry Cooder, on Boomer’s story and especially live with Bobby King and Terry Evans.

    • PS you’re probably right about Dan Penn – he’s singing on the Cooder album too, just checked.

      • i quite agree about the way the lyrics leave space for the imagination – i also forgot to add that dan penn was white and james carr was black and this was memphis in 1967, barely a breath before the sanitation workers strike which ended with mlk’s assassination . . . there are many fine other versions of the song, too – first heard it by the burritos and thought it was a country song – i do love the clarence carter one which is more intro than song . . .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s