ST. LOUIS • Twenty years ago, while Jason Delaney was in high school, an aunt took him to the Missouri Botanical Garden, where he quickly realized some varieties of daffodils were incorrectly labeled.
"I've got to find someone who works here," he recalls telling his aunt. The teenager ended up leaving the garden without alerting employees. But his silence would not last forever.
In 1995, a few years after that initial visit, Delaney got an internship at the garden. And after completing his horticulture studies at Michigan State in 1996, he landed a gardener job at the garden. Today, he carries the hefty title of North Gardens supervisor and bulb collections specialist.
"One of my first goals was to wipe out what was," Delaney, 35, said of the mislabled daffodil beds. The garden had fewer than 20 daffodil varieties when Delaney interned there. Today, it has about 600, due in large part to Delaney.
"He has such a passion for it, we kind of let him run with it," said Jim Cocos, senior manager in horticulture for the garden. "It was clear to us what his great strengths were, so why hold him back?"
Daffodils serve as one of nature's signs that spring is close (it officially began Tuesday). But a mild winter threw nature for a loop, bringing flowers out of the ground weeks earlier than normal. The daffodils at the garden are no exception.
"This is the most ridiculous spring I've ever seen," said Delaney on Monday, as a robin hopped through a bed of daffodils and two ducks chased each other at a nearby reflecting pool. "Don't get me wrong. It's been a beautiful display."
With the early spring, though, it presented challenges for places such as the garden, which plan events based on how nature typically works. For example, the annual Daffodil Show is scheduled for April 14, although the flower is in full bloom now.
Delaney is not certain why he became so passionate about daffodils, but he thinks it began at a very early age.
He tells the story of his mother, while pregnant with him, planting a row of daffodils outside their family home in Flora, Ill., about 100 miles east of St. Louis. And at the age of 4 or 5, Delaney began digging up flower bulbs.
"It's the bulb I'm really obsessed with. I'd pull it apart and see what's happening down there," Delaney said. He also would take a Magic Marker to the daffodils planted outside his grandmother's sunroom.
"I got tired of the yellow. I'd color the trumpets red," he said.
TENDING FAMILY PLOT
The garden daffodils are not the only ones he tends to. On a 2 1/2-acre plot of family land in Flora, Delaney grows about 3,000 varieties of daffodils, including flowers for three other breeders. It's where he runs a side business, selling daffodil bulbs.
And at the south St. Louis home he shares with his cat, Orpha, daffodils are a part of his eclectic garden, designed to have something blooming most all the time.
"A garden should never be static," Delaney said.
He is proud to be a daffodilian, having served two terms as president of the Greater St. Louis Daffodil Society and two terms on the board of the American Daffodil Society. He also served as chairman of the 51st annual national daffodil convention held in St. Louis in 2005.
He talks about vernalization — the shortening of the growth period — affecting the color of the flowers, and he is awaiting word from the Royal Horticultural Society in London to officially recognize a new variety of daffodil at the garden that, if approved, would be called "With Teeth." Until then, it's simply known as 692.
NICKNAME OF AFFECTION
As he walks through the garden, he stops in front of the Oregon Trail daffodil ("the epitome of perfection") and picks a Suzy variety ("That's a gorgeous flower. Never had a better year") for closer inspection.
Cocos said: "His name around here has been Bulb Boy. He didn't mind. It was always with affection. When he became a supervisor a year or so ago, it was decided we better call him Bulb Man now."
For three years, Delaney and his family held an open house at the Flora farm, with more than 100 people attending. But the flowers will not be on public display this year. Delaney is preparing for the 2016 World Daffodil Conference to be held in St. Louis. The Delaney Farm will be one of two visited by those attending the event.
His parents are supportive of Delaney's passion, although his dad was slower about coming around to planting daffodils in a field that had been fallow for about 20 years.
"But then Dad discovered something great," Delaney said. "My father collects antique Ford tractors. When people come to see the daffodils, he can show them his tractors."
Cocos said Delaney is a rare but welcome find.
"To hear him talk about not just daffodils but anything to do with bulbs, his knowledge is not just broad but deep," Cocos said. "He's a phenomenon. There's not too many people in the country with his knowledge of bulbs."
Delaney says he had no idea that digging up bulbs at the consternation of his mother and grandmother would be the early beginnings of a career.
"I'm passionate about daffodils," Delaney said. "I'm trying to grow every variety. Is there a rhyme or reason to it? Not really. There is the eternal torment of trying to breed better or collect more."