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."
Since moving to a home in Reisterstown with her husband, George Beneman, production manager at MPT and director of "Wall Street Week," James, 44, has spread the word about Magic Evening Primroses through other means. She has supplied several public gardens with plants, among them the garden at the American Visionary Arts Museum at the Inner Harbor and the United States Botanic Garden in Washington.
James has also developed several away-from-home events that hinge on the primroses' spectacular opening. One such event took place at Mon Ami Winery and Restaurant in Port Clinton, Ohio, this past July. She held another event in August at the 4-H Children's Garden at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich. The garden features a section especially for night-blooming plants.
The garden's curator, Jane Taylor, had read about Tina James' Magic Evening Primroses years ago in the SESE catalog, and ordered some seeds. The primroses have now become a focal point in the night-blooming garden. This year's Children's Garden event, called "Moonlight Magic," included an evening gathering at which participants watched the primroses bloom while Tina read her recently self-published children's book, "A Light in the Night: The Story of the Magic Primrose."
While the book's title refers to the luminous blooms that fairly glow in the dark, the story is about the magic all around us that we often don't see, like the hidden magic of the primroses themselves. In part, too, it is a story about community and the healing connections that form when we share -- our flowers, our hopes, ourselves.
The book includes "discovery" activities for children and contains information on where to attend a Magic Primrose event as well as where to get more Magic Primrose seeds (a packet of seeds is included with each book).
One of the discovery activities is building a night-blooming garden. It requires only a little space and a few inexpensive materials, but provides a way for children to experience some of nature's wondrous night life. The project is simple enough for a child to do with a friend, a satisfaction in itself.
James speaks before garden clubs and other groups on various topics. She will give a talk at the Irvine Natural Science Center, St. Timothy's School, Stevenson, on Sept. 19. The subject is "The Salad Bar in Your Own Backyard." Copies of her book of the same title will be available at the lecture.
James will also give a one-day class on autumn gardening, cooking and herb-craft at the College of Notre Dame's Gibbons Hall on Oct. 5 from 9: 30 a.m. to 1: 30 p.m. The cost is $40.
Tina James' "A Light in the Night" is available through the Irvine Natural Science Center, St. Timothy's School, Stevenson, Md. 21153, (410) 484-2413, or by mail order from Tina James, 12812 Bridlepath Road, Reisterstown, Md. 21136. The cost is $11.50 plus $3 postage.
Magic Evening Primrose seeds are available through the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, P.O. Box 158, North Garden, Va. 22959. The exchange's catalog is $3.