London — I don't bet,'' says Michael Jefferson-Brown. ``But I'd rather back a daffodil than a horse.'' He knows what he's talking about. His brilliant display today at the Chelsea Flower Show -- that horticultural bonanza that is once again multi-colorfully signaling to Londoners the onset of summer -- glows with daffodils, daffodils all the way.
But by the time Chelsea comes around each year, most British daffodils have ended their flowering season. So Mr. Jefferson-Brown has to run a slow race by cutting early the 10,000 blooms he prepares for Chelsea and putting them in cold storage.
``They musn't be too cold, though, or they'll freeze,'' he explains. ``And if they are too hot, they will flower too fast. It can be risky.'' He laughs. He has had occasional disasters with malfunctioning thermostats. But, as his immaculate array of flowers bears witness, he generally manages to reach the finishing post at just the right moment.
The show is open for four days only -- ending at 5 p.m. this Friday. The first day is traditionally reserved for members of the Royal Horticultural Society, which sponsors the show; Wednesday through Friday the show is open to the public.
Daffodils stand up well to the heat of the unbelievably crowded show, but to ensure continuing freshness Mr. Jefferson-Brown has a backup team of blooms at hand. His exhibit actually consists of 2,000 blooms, a steep bank of them, attractively arranged in bowls. This is his Silver Jubilee, the show that celebrates 25 years of successful trading.
If the word ``daffodil'' conjures up Wordsworth's famous lines about a ``crowd'' of them, all ``golden'' (or yellow, to be strictly unpoetical), then the Jefferson-Brown display demands a radical rethink. As well as yellow, modern daffodils have been bred into a considerable variety of colors -- white, orange, pink, lemon, salmon, and cream. Some, he claims, are even tinged with green, blue, or violet. Many are bicolors.
As for shapes, there are all kinds of doubles and singles, with trumpets narrow or wide, frilly, plain, or smooth; the cups are small or large; the petals pointed or rounded. Daffodil cultivars can look like anything from a half-scrambled egg to a strange rose to a -- daffodil.
Some of the oddest cultivars have a definite commercial value as novelties. ``People come up to my stand at Chelsea,'' Mr. Jefferson-Brown tells me, ``and point to a particular daffodil, saying, `That's horrible. I don't like that one at all. I'll have 20 bulbs.' ''
Among his personal favorites are some of the lemon-colored strains. ``But,'' he adds, ``I tend to favor whichever I'm looking at.''
His latest introductions include ``Hero'' (new in 1984), a tangerine-trumpeted ``departure,'' as he puts it, with ``good-sized flowers . . . held well up,'' and ``very smooth perianths of very deep gold,'' its ``slender trumpets gently opened at the mouth.'' So far, stocks of this one are small, and the price is consequently steep: 120 ($150) a bulb.
``I would be able to sell, this year, perhaps 10 to 15 bulbs of that one. I wouldn't want to sell more,'' he says.
``Tripartite,'' however, which he considers one of the most important daffodils he has introduced (it is new this year), is slightly less exclusive. Bulbs of this dainty late-flowerer cost 35 ($43.75) each. Mr. Jefferson-Brown calls it ``unique.''
It is multi-headed, with flowers of ``shining lemon gold'' with ``a split crown'' that is ``heavily lobed'' and ``laid almost flat on the petals,'' very quick growing. He expects it to become ``one of the standard kinds for gardeners'' and believes it will soon grow to be ``a 1 million stock.''
But Michael Jefferson-Brown is not just a rich man's daffodil grower. In fact, he successfully bridges two different sides of the daffodil world: the specialized and the popular, the growers who concentrate on producing medal-winning cut blooms for the show bench, and the growers who aim to fill everyone's gardens with strong, beautiful, and different daffodils. Plenty of this grower's bulbs cost no more than 40 or 50 pence (50 or 60 cents) a bulb.
One of these is his outstanding success, a daffodil combining white petals with pink trumpet. It is called ``Passionale.'' This bulb has gone all over the world and now sells by the ton.
Talking to him, one quickly realizes that daffodils are his life. He believes no other flower comparable. ``I think God made the daffodil and then rested from his labors!'' he exclaims. ``There is nothing like them.'' Clearly, he wouldn't mind if the world were blanketed with them. His affection for daffodils began before his teens. Earlier still, he recalls his father buying him a bag of mixed bulbs from Woolworth's -- when he was about 5 -- and then cutting open the only tulip to show him where the flower came from.
From bulbs in general, his fascination soon graduated to daffodils in particular. From age 12 or 13 he was already buying stock from Guy Wilson.
``Guy Wilson was the leading daffodil grower in the world at that time, living in County Antrim, Northern Ireland,'' he explains. ``I had bought bulbs from him . . . , maintained a correspondence, and seen him at shows. It ended up that I spent a year, after leaving school, learning about daffodils from him.''
This was in 1946-47. By the end of the '40s, while doing his National Service in the Army, he was approached by the publisher Fabers.
The company asked him to write a book about daffodils. This was ``The Daffodil,'' for many years the standard work. It was updated about six years ago as ``Daffodils and Narcissi.'' Since his first book, he has written a dozen more, which ``tend to be daffodil orientated.''
Today, 40 years later after that start, he claims to be the only ``full-time, all-year-round'' daffodil grower in Britain -- and Britain, he states, ``is the world-leader in daffodil growing.''
Is there strong competition among daffodil growers? I ask. He thinks not. ``Cooperation'' comes much closer. For instance, he says, ``if someone asks me for pollen from a particular cultivar, for breeding, I say, `Go ahead.' ''
He argues that daffodil growing is no way to get rich quick. He sells 700 kinds now -- though not all his own introductions. These introductions come at a rate of five or six a year. It takes 5 years for a seed to grow into a flowering bulb, and then about 10 to 15 more before a bulb is namable and commercially salable. ``Not overnight happenings,'' he comments.
Micropropagation, he feels, has speeded the process only a little, and it is very expensive.
Mr. Jefferson-Jackson likes the idea that his daffodils are breaking through national and political barriers. He sells all over the world, including countries behind the Iron Curtain. Even Arabs have even bought from him -- though he can't quiet imagine daffodils flowering in the desert.
And what of the future?
In a few years he foresees the introduction of ``an all-red daffodil.'' But he does admit that, ``in daffodil terms, the word `red' generally means `orange.' '' I'm not sure Wordsworth would have felt unhappy about that.