Cue The Trumpets

For Baltimore County's Betty Smith, a legend in daffodil-growing circles, winning blue ribbons has never lost its sweet bouquet.

April 15, 1999|By KEN FUSON | KEN FUSON,SUN STAFF

Not good. Not good at all.

Betty Smith bends over. She examines some daffodils. They look fine -- even pretty -- but not to her expert eye.

"There's no use fooling with those," she says.

On Sunday, just three days before the opening of the annual Maryland Daffodil Show, hail and high winds struck Smith's home in Baltimore County.

The 84-year-old Smith is the grande dame of Maryland daffodil growers. She can identify many of the myriad varieties. She has judged daffodil shows in several states. She has been winning blue ribbons almost since blue ribbons -- or flowers, for that matter -- were invented.

"She's a legend," says Alice Martien, another grower.

But even legends must bow to hailstorms. Daffodils are fragile. Too much sun, they burn. Too little sun, they don't grow. Too much wind, their soft petals tear.

Last year, for example, bad weather forced cancellation of the annual Maryland Daffodil Show for only the third time in 50-some years.

Smith had big plans for this year's show. Then she surveys the damage on Tuesday, the day before the show begins. Uh-oh.

"I was really counting on that one," she says, "but look at it. The trumpet should look right at you. They've taken a terrible beating."

Don't get the wrong idea. Smith's not giving up. Hardly. She has a few good blooms tucked away in the refrigerator, where they'll stay until the show starts. She thinks she'll find enough daffodils for a decent entry.

Competitors beware.

"If I exhibit," she says, "I want to win."

Besides, you can't have an official Maryland Daffodil Show without Betty Smith. Kathryn Rienhoff, another grower, says she looks forward to Smith's annual appearance as much as the first glimpse of a crocus or the sight of a robin's plump breast.

"It's a sign of spring," she says.

In the flower world, there are rose people, there are orchid fans and there are lily lovers. Smith belongs to that subset who are daffy about daffodils.

But calling a flower a daffodil is like calling a car a Chevy. It doesn't tell you much. Gone are the days when a daffodil consisted of a yellow trumpet, or cup, surrounded by yellow petals, or the perianth.

Today, there are more than 20,000 varieties, called everything from Gin and Lime to Strawberry Shortcake, from Candy Cane to Sugar and Spice, from Hot Toddy to Ice House. There's even a daffodil named for the late Charles Kuralt.

Go to the daffodil show, which continues today in north Baltimore, and you will find all manner of colors and shapes. Red trumpets with white petals, yellow trumpets with pink petals. Long petals, short petals. Miniature daffodils. Double daffodils. Split-corona daffodils.

You will also find Betty Smith.

She grew up in Baltimore but has an accent that suggests New England. Picture her sipping tea with Katharine Hepburn. She has that kind of well-mannered bearing.

"How do you talk about her impact?" asks Olivia Welbourn, a daffodil aficionado. "She's a very giving individual who teaches, judges and fosters the love of daffodils."

Smith's love of the flower blossomed when she was a girl and read the children's book "The Secret Garden," in which the young heroine finds a garden and has her spirit reawakened.

"This girl found daffodils," Smith says. "I read her book, went outside and, sure enough, there were some daffodils. Ever since then I've been interested."

The night before she and her husband, Thomas, moved into their home in Baltimore County, they planted daffodil bulbs in the front lawn. Fifty years later, the bulbs still bloom every year.

Her husband, an architect, died last September. For Easter, Smith placed freshly cut daffodils on his grave. "The ones he liked," she says.

Smith's home, which sits on 30 acres of what used to be the site of the Maryland Polo Club, is daffodil heaven. Hundreds of flowers line her 1,400-foot driveway. Others are planted around the grounds.

Smith's dining room table always holds a bowl of fresh cut flowers.

"I just like it," she says. "And my mother used to do it."

Smith has won so many blue ribbons over the years she has lost count. "I wouldn't hazard a guess." She has won medals, best-of-show ribbons, probably everything there is to win in the world of daffodil growing.

"I think she likes to compete," says Smith's niece, Anne Donnell Smith, another accomplished grower. "I think she likes to show people her flowers, and it tickles her if she wins a big ribbon."

It delights her even more to see a young person enter the field. In fact, Smith sponsors an annual award to encourage participation in garden clubs.

"She always gives the extra amount, not only in knowledge, but she gives her bulbs to people, too," Rienhoff says. "She's a real inspiration for young people."

Enough of these compliments. Smith has to prepare for the show.

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