George Griffith is what you might call a flower guru.
Griffith, the co-owner – along with his partner, Tom O’Brien – of the Flower Barn in Westmont, has been passionate about all flowers and plants since he was a child, but it’s the picturesque water lilies and ponds at his summer home outside of Ligonier that bring him the most joy.
“There is just something magical about water lilies,” he said.
As a boy, Griffith sold goldfish and tropical fish at a W.T. Grant store and eventually began to focus his attention on aquatic plants.
His family had property in Bedford, and in the summer he’d be at the pond there cultivating lilies.
“That’s when I really started to get into it,” Griffith said. “In junior high, I started to ship my water lilies all over the country. I really enjoyed it, and it became my life.”
Today, Griffith has more than 30 lily ponds spread out over 50-plus acres of land near Ligonier.
“There are thousands of lilies here,” he said. “Not many people in the country have lilies this prolific.”
Two-foot deep ponds of various sizes are filled with colorful and fragrant hardy and tropical lilies.
Over the years, Griffith has hybridized hundreds of lilies in shades of pink, yellow and purple and sells some of them wholesale.
But it’s his lotus collection that has a history dating back 2,000 to 3,000 years.
Griffith said an ancient seed was unearthed in 1954 in a Manchurian lakebed. The seed was later germinated and grew at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in Washington, D.C.
How he was able to obtain a division of the Manchurian lotus goes back to when Griffith was attending Penn State. As a horticulture student, his talents caught the attention of Milton Eisenhower, then president of the university and brother of U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In 1955, President Eisenhower was set to deliver the commencement speech at Penn State, and to celebrate the occasion Griffith floated 2,000 water lilies in front of the university president’s home.
When Griffith learned that children were vandalizing the gardens in Washington, he asked Milton Eisenhower for help.
The university president in turn was able to secure a division of the lotus for Griffith to raise.
The lotuses continue to thrive in Griffith’s ponds. Unlike lily pads, which float on the surface, lotuses have leaves that are held above the water.
He said he spends pretty much every free minute in the warmer months tending to the ponds and fertilizing, which is done several times during the summer.
“There is always something to do,” Griffith said.
The ponds freeze over in winter, but the hardy lilies and lotuses are able to survive the cold because their roots are underground.
Not so the tropical lilies.
“It’s like, ‘I’ve served you a fine dinner and goodbye,’ ” Griffith said.
Two or three times a year, Griffith and O’Brien host fundraiser luncheons and tours at their home to benefit institutions such as Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh and the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg.
Horticulture students from Penn State also make trips to the property to study the vegetation.
In addition, Griffith has donated many of his lotuses and water lilies to The Arboretum at Penn State.
The lily ponds attracted the attention
of Pittsburgh-based photographer Scott Goldsmith, who took numerous photos
for his 2009 book, “George Griffith’s Lily Pad.”
Penn Stater magazine did a feature on the aquatic plants in April 2010.
What keeps Griffith motivated after all these years is the challenge of developing new lily hybrids.
“It’s thrilling and so rewarding to see new creations,” he said. “I love doing what I’m doing.”
Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat print edition.
Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat e-edition.