|Marvel of Peru (Mirabilis jalapa)|
It is a widely cultivated plant that is also found growing wild in the Maltese countryside. In Maltese it is known as ħummejr.
It is believed that this plant was first exported from the Peruvian Andes in 1540.
The plant grows along country roads and lanes and can be easily recognised by its large number of brightly coloured flowers.
The flowers can be of different colours ranging from yellow to red with some flowers being white, striped or marked with different colours. Sometimes differently coloured flowers grow simultaneously from the same plant. More surprisingly the colour of the flowers growing on a particular plant change in colour as the plant matures. Thus a plant that starts off by having yellow flowers ends with dark pink flowers while a plant with white flowers starts producing light violet flowers.
The marvel of Peru flowers from late spring to early autumn. The flowers remain open well after sunset and are pollinated by long-tongued moths such as the hawkmoths which are attracted to the flowers by a strong sweet-smelling fragrance.
Parts of the plant are said to be very toxic and can have effects similar to that of LSD. They can cause digestive disorders and abortion.
As with many poisonous plants this species also has medicinal value. It is used as a laxative, or to treat constipation and to expel intestinal worms. The flowers are used in food colouring particularly as a crimson dye which is used to colour cakes and jellies.
This article was published in The Times on 07.09.11