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 more than 50 years ago. 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, who received a bachelor's degree in horticulture from Penn State, paid for his college eduation with the proceeds from his fish and water plants sales.

In 1955, while 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, creating 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, George plans to donate some very special lotus plants to us this spring/summer – Chinese lotus, grown from 2,000-year-old seeds.

The Manchurian variety of Chinese lotus (Nelumbium nucifera) grows in only two places in the United States – Mr. Griffith’s home in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, and Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington, D.C. In 1951, three ancient lotus seeds were discovered in a Manchurian lake bed in China. Although the seeds' thick coating can keep them viable for more than 100 years, no one thought that seeds 2,000 to 3,000 years old would still germinate. Paul Souder, a botanist at the national water gardens, proved it could be done.

In 1956, Mr. Griffith 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 his powerful friend if he might have a division to raise and preserve the variety. The Manchurian lotus bloomed first at his house in Johnstown and has prospered at the summer house in Ligonier since they bought it in 1978. Mr. Griffith has perpetuated the ancient flower but does not sell it.

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