Fifty people hovered around the fringe of Tina James' brick patio in Owings Mills. They had come for dinner, an al fresco buffet, and a show.
The dinner was of home-grown vegetables and potluck offerings they'd brought themselves. But it was barely under way when the sun began setting through the trees. So instead of eating or making dinner-party small talk, the entire company was jockeying for position in front of James' evening primroses, waiting for the magic to begin.
"Look! There goes one!" one guest cried.
Several who were watching other plants came to peer over the man's shoulder at the single creamy yellow bloom.
"I've got one!" cried another guest farther down the clustered rows of bushy primroses. "Wow!"
"Me too!" shouted a third from the other side of the patio.
I leaned closer to the plant I had chosen and waited. On one of the many green stalks, I saw a flutelike blossom quiver, then swell, as though it was taking a deep breath for the first time. Suddenly, in one fluid motion as though drawn by an unseen hand, the sepals -- the green outer covering of the flower -- peeled back. Then the blossom itself, furled like a fairy umbrella, swelled. One petal flipped away from the others, and then, before my eyes, the flower spread wide. It was like seeing time-lapse photography in person. Magic!
As the light faded, more and more Magic Evening Primroses opened, faster and faster, creating a scene right out of "Fantasia." Within a half-hour, all of the azalea-sized plants were covered with masses of wide-open blooms, and a delicate, lemony scent perfumed the air.
Magic Evening Primroses are one of nature's wonders. James first came across them 20 years ago by chance. James, a garden writer, teacher and host of the Maryland Public Television series "Good Earth Garden," saw them one evening at a farm in Westminster.
"I went to the farm every week to buy goat's milk, and was standing there at dusk, talking with Ray and Esther Arrington, the owners," James remembers. "Suddenly, I realized I was looking at a flower that hadn't been there the moment before! The plant was growing by a fence. I went over to it, and saw one of the last blooms of the night opening right before my eyes. It was magic!"
Esther Arrington dug up a plant for James. From that one plant grew James' romance with the Magic Evening Primrose.
A friend of James, naturalist Jean Worthley of MPT's "Hodge Podge Lodge" fame, knew the flowers were of the Oenothera genus, but could not find mention of one that opened so dramatically.
"Miss Jean" tracked down an Oenothera specialist, Dr. Warren L. Wagner at the Missouri Botanical Garden, who identified the flowers as Oenothera glazioviana Micheli. Wagner surmised that these plants, unique in the speed of their blooming, probably resulted from a chance cross between two common species of Oenothera. (Though they are called evening primroses, they do not resemble, and are not related to, Primula, the common primrose.)
Magic Evening Primroses are biennials. If seeded in fall, they make leaves and a strong root. Then they will bloom in late spring, usually around June, and go all summer long. However, if allowed to go to seed, these primroses (like other biennials) tend to stagger their blooming period naturally, sometimes continuing until frost.
In its early stages, the plant has a habit of growing low, similar to a dandelion (but its leaves are more sage-color than true green). The weed-fearing gardener must be careful not to yank up a Magic Evening Primrose inadvertently. As it develops, the plant grows larger and thicker. Then, it sends up shoots that hold myriad rings of flowers in various stages of development.
Magic Evening Primroses thrive in full sun, where they grow to a bushy 3 to 5 feet tall. They will grow (and bloom) in partial shade, but tend to get leggy.
Magic Evening Primroses have been an integral part of James' gardening life ever since she found them. Shortly after her discovery, she supplied seeds of the plant to the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE), an organization that conserves regional and heirloom plants and seeds native to the mid-Atlantic area. The seeds appear in the SESE catalog as Tina James' Magic Evening Primrose.
During the filming of "Good Earth Garden," which took place from 1983 to 1986 at her home in Owings Mills, James held an annual primrose celebration, such as the one described above. She invited friends and fans of her show to the event, which was timed to coincide with the biggest bloom of the primroses. Guests often came with video cameras to film the show.
"There would be anywhere between 30 and 100 people there," James says, "many of whom I had met only by letter, so it was really interesting."