The rich afterglow of empire settled on Chelsea this week as the Brits began their astonishing spring rite which they call a "flower show."

It's not what it was in the old days, of course. It's a great deal more than it used to be.

Every year it gets bigger (last year a quarter-million people came during four days) and every year the standard of perfection goes up. It's like a three-minute mile now.

The marquee is a canvas tent covering 3 1/2 acres (14 men spend a bit more than two weeks putting it up, even if there are no gales about) and outdoors there are 24 additional acres of displays, including gardens sponsored by such outfits as the Sunday Times (which had rather a knockout garden on three levels). Such things cost thousands of pounds and few nurserymen can afford them any more.

It is unarguable that Chelsea offers an assortment of flesh and flower that can be seen nowhere else. Superb flowers superbly grown and groomed. The flesh, unlike the flowers, is pretty well hung with tweeds, worsteds, silk prints, jeans and few of these people are ever going to be hired by a Las Vegas show.

Still and all, until you have seen 60,000 or more grubby gardeners all at once in one place, pretty well scrubbed up and decked out, you have no idea how intense human passion can be when directed at a delphinium.

The royal family arrived Monday to be shown around by Lord Aberconway, president of the Royal Horticultural Society which puts on the show. Monarchs since George II have been patrons of the society, and some of them have been keen gardeners.

Queen Elizabeth was off in Germany on some matter of state instead of checking out the roses at Chelsea, but other members of the family attended, including the queen mother dressed in spring green and plenty of it.

Her hat appeared to be made of huge green roses, with just a bit of her gray hair peeking out and if you didn't expect the goddess Flora to be 17 years old she was a splendid symbol of all that is soft and gracious in the month of May.

Tuesday was the "private viewing day," for fellows (as members of the horticultural society are known) and a few select guests. Although we were between 60,000 and 80,000 by my best reckoning based on how many people can stand at once on the Memphis levee to watch fireworks.

It did not seem excessively private to some:

"If one may level a criticism of the society as regards its shows," said a Savile-clad man with years of excellent port under his belt, "it is that the shows are somewhat crowded."

But not much more than Times Square on New Year's Eve, and this year, for a great mercy, no children under the age of 5 were allowed. Your bones suffer enough (one may arrive at 9 a.m. and leave the show at last at 8 p.m.) without being rammed by steel vehicles as the mother of some infant peers at Eucalyptus gunnii.

Theoretically there are places to sit down, near outdoor counters where they sell sausage pies. It is not clear whether the sausage is cooked inside the pastry or left raw, but it would be rude to ask. In any case you eat standing up, the chairs being occupied by those who have decided to give up feet forever.

They say that in the old days Chelsea was ever so posh. The Duke of Drymarsh would come with his duchess, and his gardener would swap lies with other professional gardeners a discreet distance away, and between kles in bog plants.

Now the lords still come, but so does everybody else, and the accents are by no means all Country House.

One fellow in a T-shirt just outside the entrance bore a printed message on his chest explaining both salaciously and wittily the various emotional states his body is subject to.

A certified dowager - it is virtually impossible to take it - gazed at some greenhouses that may have fallen short of her standards and said imperially:

"But this is merelys - ."

In general, however, there was nothing to shock an American except the flowers.

"There it is," said a young woman to her friend. And there it was a six-foot plant of Ludlows great yellow wild tree peony in full bloom.

You have seen the same expression in the eyes when women leave the hospital with their new-born baby. There should have been silence for her moment of Enlightenment, gazing at her peony, except a great many other people all around her were discovering at the same moment some other treasure - Cox' juniper here, the Wakehurst andromeda there - and were responding with their own version of reverence or hysteria.

Chelsea is one place you can see women in gloves. Not many, but some. They know it's not smart but they're not thinking of fashion. They are affirming a surface decorum of a day now past. Or a tie with gardeners long gone who once took them to Chelsea.

England is still the preeminent gardening country of the world and the English take pride in leading the world in that field. The whole point of the Empire, of course, was to provide the English garden with the greatest variety of plants ever assembled by any nation in any era. Now that they have their Himalayan primroses, their Cape bulbs, their American magnolias, they hardly need an empire any more.

Chelsea is a district of London on the Thames, noted for its soft air. Henry VIII fell in love with Chelsea Manor and acquired it by means that need not be detailed, but then the temptation of that garden was very great, remember that.

This is the 57th show held on the grounds of the Royal Hospital, itself one of the great sites of London. Kings of England paid for the building designed by Christopher Wren in 1692 to house the honorable and decrepit soldiers and sailors of the kingdom's wars. Many of them have spent their last years in the noble building that overlooks the flower show, and many of the visitors stood at the courtyard gates looking up where the old men live.

And the pensioners of Chelsea, for their part, could look down at the long lines of English gardeners streaming through the crested gates to see the roses (Pliny said Albion was named either for its white cliffs or its white roses) of today. And yesterday. For there was the great white 'Maiden's Blush of the English,' which is sometimes called, by the French especially, 'Passionate Nymph's Thigh.' A very old rose, and a very fresh nymph still.

The thing nobody ever quite gets over is the flawless quality of the blooms and the massed profusion of them. Some of the plants are quite rare, some are very expensive and irreplaceable, some are very old specimens, and all of them are in that superb condition of vigor and freshness that drives home gardeners mad.

A little iris garden involves hundreds of stalks of irises in the perfection of their first fresh blooms - their flowering was not timed for last week or next week - and each stalk grew from its own pot. As the weather before the show alternated cold and not so cold, the temperature was gauged and adjusted artifically for the plants. Few objects on the planet brusie so easily as iris petals, but here they were by the hundreds without blemish anywhere.

The towering stalks of delphiniums and lilies - all at their highest perfection of bloom - were got to the show, often from long distances, by an almost superhuman attention to padding the individual blooms with tissue paper and cotton and moving them around like brimming cups.

A 50-foot bed of spring-flowering bulbs was packed with snowdrops, crocuses, wild tulips from Asia, rare wild irises, African bulb flowers that in nature bloom in January or in June, but here bloomed all together.

The Dutch growers, as usual, amazed the world of Chelsea with their skill at this sort of thing, and other remarkable displays came from Belgium, Spain and other countries. None from America.

Individual fellows as well as nurseries may submit outstanding form of plants for the society's Award of Merit and First Class Certificate. A number of the entrants this year were annoyed to see typed notices on their precious treasures reminding the exhibitors the plant in question had received an award in, for example, 1928. Entries of such distinguished gardners as the countess of Rosse were passed over without comment or certificate. Her spooneri rosea covering the balustrade of Birr Castle is, of course, the envy of the world.

At Chelsea, the judges who give awards could fling out gold medals almost at random and not be embarrassedly by the decision, and 39 gold medals were handed out, though a display has to be judged superlative to get one. Silver-gilt medals are treasured almost as much, and a great many were awarded. Even to enter the competition at Chelsea means more than winning first place at ordinary shows, because you have to be a master to be allowed to show in the first place.

Farmers showed vegetables as perfect as the flowers.

Gardners and visitors alike quickly fell into two main groups - those who gaped at begoina flowers larger than any salad plate, and those who went to pieces over small-flowered wild clematis.

Arabs were there, and a lot of Germans and French and Americans, many of whom time their rare trips to England to see Chelsea.

Rare books, useful books, garden houses, paving, tools, stone fountains - everything even remotely connected with gardens was shown in endless carefully chosen exhibits.

"A slasher, madam," said a man to a good-looking young woman inquiring about an implement related to a battle ax.

"Oh, I knew that. I already have a slasher. I mean that other one."

"A bush-hook, madam."

"Exactly. That's precisely what I need, a brush-hook."

It would scare the daylights out of a hillside of sumac or, for that matter, a husband, but the woman bought one.

The cutting edge of our day, it seemed to some observers, is not necessarily the most bizarre idea dreamed up by someone who has designed a city for the moon, but may be instead the gardener's friendly slasher and brush-hook.

In any case, while some parts of the brave new world seem to strip their gears a bit, the Chelsea Flower Show has moved effortlessly into tenth gear to date. In an age of searching, Chelsea suggests that what a lot of modern people are searching for is a good garden slasher or brush-hook and a good reliable vine and fig tree. The point of Chelsea is that you're not nuts - or no more so than an astonishing percentage of the population - to want them.