George Griffith - Donor Shares Beauty of Rare Lotus Plants and Cultivated Water-Lilies with Arboretum


[The information below was gleaned from the following sources: The Penn Stater (March/April 2010), and]

The Lotus Pool plant material, a combination of both tropical and hardy water-lilies, is being donated by George Griffith ‘56, who has been cultivating and hybridizing water-lilies since he was an undergraduate at Penn State. Mr. Griffith, who co-owns the Flower Barn in Cambria County's Johnstown, with Mr. Tom O'Brien, began his business career as a boy selling goldfish and tropical fish at W.T. Grant's, and then became interested in growing water plants. He has been raising fragrant water- lilies (Nymphaea odorata) since the 1940s, when his uncle, Dr. Lewis Wesner of Johnstown, encouraged him to sell the lilies he had introduced into his pond in Bedford.

Mr. Griffith funded his studies at Penn State, where he received a bachelor's degree in horticulture, with the proceeds from his fish and water plant sales.

In 1955, while he was a student, his specialty drew the interest of Milton Eisenhower, Penn State president and brother of the U.S. president. To celebrate Dwight Eisenhower's visit to speak at commencement, Mr. Griffith floated 2,000 water-lilies on a pond in front of the University president's home. A dramatic photo of the brothers and the pond appeared in Life magazine.

He has now been hybridizing water-lilies for a half century. He created the first peach-colored one ('Tom O'Brien') seven years ago. Other hybrids that he raises and sells include his own hardy lily 'Pink Sunrise,' two other hardy lilies – 'Lemon Chiffon' and the darker yellow 'Charlene Strawn' – and two bluish-purple tropical lilies, 'Director Moore' and 'Foxfire.'

In addition to water-lilies, Mr. Griffith has donated some very special lotus plants to us – plants that originated from two seeds collected by a Japanese botanist in a dry Manchurian lake bed and germinated in 1951 by Paul Souder, a botanist at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington, DC. Other seeds from this lake bed, which was drained by an earthquake hundreds of years ago, have been radiocarbon-dated to be as old as 1,300 years.

In 1956, Mr. Griffith became aware of this rare lotus when he saw the plants blooming in a pond behind a chain-link fence at Kenilworth. Noticing that they were becoming the target of vandals, he asked Mr. Souder, his friend, if he might have a division to raise and help to preserve the variety. The Manchurian lotus bloomed first at his house in Johnstown and has prospered at his summer house in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, since he bought it in 1978. Mr. Griffith has perpetuated the ancient flower but does not sell it.

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