WINNEMUCCA - Close your eyes and picture the toughest desert perennial you can.

You're probably imagining a ragged stick of a plant with tired foliage; one that blooms spectacularly for about five minutes after a summer rain, but is as dowdy and faded as your Aunt Mabel's housedress the rest of the season.

You'd be wrong.

Desert four o'clock, or Mirabilis multiflora, would not look out of place in a tropical garden. The leaves are nearly the size and shape of a philodendron leaf, and the deep green color doesn't seem tired even during the backbone of summer. From early July to frost, fragrant magenta flowers an inch or more in width cover the mounding foliage.

Desert four o'clock mounds to over a foot in height, and can spread out to four feet. It's an excellent ground cover; very few weeds are intrepid enough to penetrate the thick foliage.

And it's grittier than a buckaroo's socks. I first planted desert four o'clocks fifteen years ago, at the end of a driveway out in sagebrush suburbia. They haven't had an ounce of supplemental water for ten years, but every summer that original patch comes back and blooms like your grandmother's well-tended petunias.

The plant forms underground tubers, which may be the secret to its survival. The foliage dies back completely in the fall. The dried plants are covered with seeds pods, each containing two or three black seeds about the size of morning glory seeds. I usually scatter them in the desert, although they seldom sprout. They do not require amended soil. In fact, one plant volunteered on a freshly bulldozed west-facing slope. That's how tough it is.

I got the original seeds from Plants of the Southwest, along with several other drought-hardy perennials: rock cress, penstemon, and black-footed daisy, among others. Without care, the rest of the plants eventually perished, but the four o'clocks come back better every year.

Desert four o'clock is not easy to germinate, although this vice may be a virtue in disguise, given the proliferation of seeds. They require cold-stratification and then a bit of moisture to germinate.

I did not know about the gentle process of putting seeds needing cold stratifying in some damp paper towels or peat moss, then storing it in the crisper of the fridge. Instead, I just threw the packages of seeds needing that treatment in the freezer for a couple of months. I don't advise that, but it worked.

As I've become more enlightened, I realize the best way to germinate them is to plant them between a quarter and a half-inch deep in the fall, and water them well. When desert four o'clock first sprouts, it looks like an oversized radish. In after years, the plant pushes up a cluster of purple-tinged leaves.

Occasionally, I'll see sprouts where I don't want them. They are easy to pull, and don't come back from the roots, at least as seedlings. I have transplanted seedlings, but the roots must be tender, because two out of three won't survive the move.

The one difficulty with the plant stems from its many virtues. Because it requires so little care and has such a strong presence in the garden, it is difficult to find plants to complement it. Fortunately, it can tolerate water, so it is a natural planted with bulbs. Tulips, hyacinths and daffodils will have finished blooming before the four o'clocks overwhelm them, and taller irises provide an interesting bit of structure over the mounding leaves.

The strong color and mounding shape require equally strong partners. It works well under pinyons and other pines. Tall yucca has the architectural element four o'clocks need. Scarlett globemallow offers a nice contrast in color, but may not be tall enough or diverse enough in form. Pink wild snapdragon (Penstemon palmeri), and some of the agastaches and salvias have the height, floral color and presence to work, but they tend to be short-lived. White and yellow evening primroses would blend beautifully, but don't offer the contrast in shape and texture.

However you use it, it's worth finding desert four o'clock a date to your garden prom. This is one perennial which belongs in more gardens.

When Teresa Howell isn't making life tough for her plants, she teaches English at Great Basin College.