Gardener inspired by the loveliness of a lily

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George Griffith has been gambling for more than 60 years. But instead of colored chips or wads of cash, he makes his bets with pollen.

The games are played knee-deep in the ponds behind his house in Ligonier. He chooses a water lily that is still closed and, with his thumbs, peels back the petals. He cuts off the pollen-bearing anthers to make sure that the flower doesn’t self-pollinate, exposing the lily’s yellow center. Mr. Griffith calls this “the vagina of the flower,” and onto its sticky surface he dusts pollen from another bloom. Some people use a fine camelhair paintbrush, but Mr. Griffith prefers his fingers. Then he closes up the flower with an elastic band and waits. 

It will be two years before the hybrid he has created begins to bloom. Only then will he know whether all that finger-work was in vain. Like most gamblers, he loses more often than he wins. Many flowers come out drab, unspectacular. But from the way he talks, it is easy to tell that the work pays off. 

In the Everglades, these flowers are markers of an ecosystem’s health, canaries in an aquatic coal mine. They are also impressive breathers, explains Jennifer Richards, a botanist at Florida International University. Because gases diffuse 10,000 times more slowly underwater than above it, water lilies have evolved a way to aerate their submerged roots and stems. Air that comes in young leaves gets trapped, and the only escape route is down, through the entire plant and out the more mature leaves, which have become leaky in their old age. 

But that’s not why Mr. Griffith is interested in water lilies and lotuses. He does not talk about pressure gradients or DNA transcription. He does not even want to talk about the minutiae of hybridizing -- how he stores the bulblets in the fridge or how he sprinkles seeds with soil. He wants to talk about beauty.

Often, he trails off in the middle of a sentence, distracted by the sight of a flower. 

“Look at the sculptural quality to it,” he says, gesturing to a lotus. “Look how embryonic it is.”

Or: “You see how double-double that flower is. Look at the petalization.”

He leans over an electric wire, strung around the ponds to protect the plants from deer, and sprinkles water onto a veined leaf with a cupped hand, admiring how the liquid breaks into beads and coalesces again. 

Mr. Griffith is 81 years old, and he looks like he would be more at home in the galleries of New York than in a field in Westmoreland County. He wears tasseled leather loafers made by Cole Haan and crisp collared shirts. He smokes constantly, dropping Marlboro butts into the grass beside his ponds.

Don’t let his appearance fool you: He has propagated water lilies for longer than most of us have been tying our own shoes. 

He started his first pond at age 8. As a kid in Johnstown, he had so many aquariums that his family had to reinforce the floor. Later, he sold the plants to pay for his Penn State tuition.

“I had a sister who came down with breast cancer. She had five children, and I thought it was not fair to my parents and her husband that I would take money for school,” he explains.

He had already been growing water plants in his uncle’s old trout ponds, and he began to take out ads in gardening magazines. In late spring, he would lean into the water and follow the rhizomes to the roots, pulling them up and packing the bulblets in beer crates. He mailed them from the tiny post office in Dilltown, making enough money to pay for a bachelor’s degree in horticulture. As a florist and owner of The Flower Barn in Johnstown, he has an intimacy with plants that makes him picky about how they are described.

“I hate when people say that flowers smell,” he says. “Garbage smells. Flowers have aroma.”

He finds most writers’ descriptions of plant aromas “outlandish.” He also dislikes when people ask about his dirt. Dirt, he says, gets stuck under your fingernails. Flowers grow in soil. 

He is proud of his water lilies, proud that they have graced tables in the White House. But he does not register his cultivars with Water Gardeners International.

“I’ve done them for myself,” he says.

Usually, Mr. Griffith rides around his ponds on his golf carts, watching as dragonflies flit over his blooms and hawks circle overhead, stopping now and then to pull out a flower and hold it to his nose. Today, though, he will open up his property for the Lotus and Lilies Salon, a fundraiser for the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art. Guests will enjoy a buffet lunch and the refined atmosphere of Ligonier, where Pittsburgh’s rich and famous have traditionally gone to escape the city. But the most important part of the day will be the flowers. 

“To see such beauty coming out of that dirty water ...” he says. But he does not finish the sentence. 

Eric Boodman:

Eric Boodman: or 412-263-3772, or on Twitter @EricBoodman

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