Right about now, mid-August stretching into mid-September, is the perfect time to harvest the seeds of four o'clock flowers.
The seeds are hard, black pellets that resemble the clues you see in your kitchen cupboards that prove you have a mouse. Yes, you read that right. You'll never see a bride carry a bouquet of four o'clock's, there isn't any love songs about this flower, and they spread in your garden like lice in a third-grade classroom.
As unglamorous as they are, they are abundant in my Bridesburg front yard, the daughters of my mom Carmella's garden in Port Richmond a mere four traffic lights away. It was back in 1983 when we moved into our new three-bedroom twin with a front porch and a big backyard with a side garden and grass. Grass! Up until then, we were like giraffes at the Philadelphia Zoo, living on cement for our open spaces.
As a housewarming gift, my mom's sister Susie gave her an envelope packet of four o'clock seeds that she bought from the Bridesburg Ladies Club fundraiser for 50 cents. Two dozen little, black pellets were sprinkled in our side yard, and for over 30 years, they grew in jungle-like proportions, being fertilized and watered by Bruno and Fonzie, the Kozlowski Dalmatians.
And every August into September, we would start collecting the seeds. We always had an above-ground pool in our backyard, so our circle of friends multiplied in the summer months. (Come first day of school, though, we were lepers.) To get us out of her hair, my mom would give us jelly jars and tell us to start picking the seeds off the four o'clocks. Just as we swam races in the pool and judged one another on the biggest splashes, seed picking, too, became a game. My mom gave out jars of these seeds to her neighbors and friends, although looking back it looked as if we were running an opium seed distribution. When her three daughters bought homes of their own, she gave us four o'clock seeds to start our own gardens.
What was a competition as kids turned into a meditation as an adult. Just as you can never just buy one thing in the dollar store, you can't just pick one four o'clock seed. Once you start, you quickly have a handful, then a pocketful and then, you're looking for that darn jelly jar. It is a task you must finish no matter what, sort of like watching Jaws when you find it on television while flipping through the channels and you have to watch it until it ends.
The four o'clock, (the Latin meaning mirabilis jalapa ) is called the marvel of Peru and is a small trumpet-like flower that blossoms in white, yellow, pink and sometimes multi. It flourishes in poor soil conditions, and since I'm a half block away from the old Rohm and Haas chemical plant on the Delaware River in Bridesburg, my four o'clocks are growing like something out of Little Shop of Horrors.
On Sept. 11, 2001, as the world watched the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, it was still early in the afternoon when we did not know what our future held. My dad was watching Channel 6's Action News and if anchor Jim Gardner would've told us to pack our things and head to safer ground, we would have.
I went out to the garden and started to pick the four o'clock seeds. It was a sunny day and eerily quiet, no traffic on the street. It was as if we were all holding our breath. If we had to flee, I wanted to take these seeds and plant them wherever we landed, because, to me, four o'clocks in the yard means home.
Since that day I've secretly been the Johnnie Appleseed of Philadelphia — but with four o'clock seeds. I've been very lucky to work for Philadelphia's Parks and Recreation, and I've planted thousands of four o'clock seeds in most of the parks I've been in. I've planted them at Pleasant Hill Park up on the northeast Philly riverfront, threw a few dozen seeds around the Lakes at FDR Park and even planted them among the rosebushes at McPherson Square, at the epicenter of the City's opioid epidemic at Kensington and Indiana Avenues. Whenever I'm in a park, I'll toss some four o'clock seeds in the dirt. Dickinson Square, Clark Park, Campbell Square, Penn Treaty Park — Wilt Chamberlain isn't the only Philadelphian who spread his seeds!
Last week, my lawn guy cut my grass as he does every two weeks. I sent him a text to please cut the big weed that grew by the front of my porch steps. Instead, he macheted a crop of four o'clocks that resembled Michael Jackson's Afro during his Jackson 5 days.
"I'm sorry," he stammered. "I thought they were a weed."
Not to worry, I have some seeds I can plant.