William Phillips
The Miracle Man

Text by Kit Knotts
Photos credited with large images
Click images to enlarge


In the hilly woodlands near the river in Memphis, Tennessee, a remarkable garden is being born, rare and beautiful waterlilies thrive far from their habitats and exotic tropical plants flower and fruit year round. If this seems improbable, or even impossible, don't tell Dr. William Phillips that! He is a man who makes miracles.

Over the past few years William has been assembling a parcel of land that is now just over 70 acres, mostly fields and timberland. The five climate-controlled greenhouses hold much of William's collection of tropical plants. Though he loves all tropicals, the result of a trip to Florida and the Bahamas many years ago, waterlilies were his first interest and are his passion today.

"There was one lady in our small town of Smithville, Mississippi who had a pond" relates William. "It was the talk of the community. I went to see it and was fascinated. When I was about 16 years old I decided I would use our farm tractor with its dirt scoop and dig a pond. My Mother was working and I knew that I had all day to get it done without her knowing. I was afraid she would object if I asked her first.

"I started in the morning and when she drove up to our house about 3:30 PM, I had an oval pond dug about 25 feet long and about 14 feet wide. As my mother turned in the driveway I was finishing the bottom and she could see the top half of a tractor with me coming out of this big hole in the ground! She was astonished and came running to the pond to see what in the world was going on. I told her that the cement truck was on its way and we had to move the tractor and car so they could pour the cement. It was too late to stop!

"I ordered a lotus and six or seven hardy lilies. It was beautiful! People started coming to see it, and cars driving down the road would pull off to the side and come and look at the beautiful pink lotus surrounded with lilies full of blooms. It stayed beautiful for years despite my leaving home for college. The pond is still there almost 45 years later."

The total garden, which William calls Bannoche after one of his favorite Heliconias, H. 'Iris Bannoche', is in its infancy. The dappled woodlands on the hillsides give way to an expansive lawn near the greenhouses. Several natural streams will be harnessed to create numerous small lakes for waterlilies and lotuses. Existing lotus pools already thrive and the main lake houses Victoria and waterlilies in the warm months.

It is in the greenhouses though that the heart of Bannoche beats. Tropical terrestrials love the summer-like environment maintained for them but much of the space is given to ponds kept at 90 degrees. It is in these ponds that William has become the premier cultivator of the Australian subgenus of Nymphaea, Anecphya. The best known of these is N. gigantea.




 N. gigantea 'Albert de Lestang'

N. gigantea blue form

N. gigantea 'Neorosea'

William fell in love with the several giganteas in cultivation in the US, the pale blue to white 'Albert de Lestang', a wonderful blue regularly propagated by Rich Sacher and the pink 'Neorosea' collected by Walter Pagels. Last winter, having recently received a rare start of 'Neorosea', William wrote:

"A couple of days ago I dropped the rhizome in the pond of murky 90 degree water about three feet deep. I couldn't find it. I thought I could take a light under water and see it. I couldn't! So I took off my clothes and got on my hands and knees and crawled on the bottom among muck, roots, and all sorts of other stuff and I found it! I jumped up covered with muck to my shoulders and yelled, 'Yes!' "

A wonderful long distance partnership has developed between William and Australian collector André Leu. With his characteristic generosity, Andre shared seeds from the collecting trip with Walter Pagels in April of 2000 with a number of Anecphya aficionados in the US including William. While all others struggled, the resulting seedlings thrived in Memphis. The stunning deep pink cultivar named 'Andre Leu' was probably the most exciting of many seedlings.

After a field collecting expedition with Barre Helquist in March of 2001, Andre was able to send William seeds of N. immutabilis, a pink version of the usually blue N. violacea, N. pubscens, N. nouchali, and the "most spectacular blue gigantea" that Andre has ever seen. It was a very deep blue, huge and in a pond where most were of this type. Barre found them. These seedlings are still small but their first blooms are eagerly anticipated.

Because of William's dedication to propagating the "Aussies" coupled with his success, much is being learned about their requirements in cultivation. They should become more available and easier to grow for all water gardeners.


 Anecphya seed pod

Anecphya seeds at pod rupture

Anecphya seedling pan

In July of this year William and Andre met in person at Bannoche. Andre, his wife Julia and their two sons, Asha, 12, and Nick, 9, made an expedition of a different sort - to the US to see a number of water gardening friends made through mutual interest in Australian waterlilies. "They are such delightful people!" William exclaimed after the visit. "It is a day I'll never forget!"


 Andre & William at a lotus pond

Andre and William at a gigantea pond

William's story cannot be really told without mentioning some special circumstances that have influenced his life. At his birth, the doctor detected a problem with his heart but was unable to diagnose it. As a youngster he developed rheumatic fever and his activities were limited from time to time. A good student, he attended the University of Mississippi and Tulane Medical School.

While at Tulane, students performed EKG's on each other for the experience and William's wouldn't read normally. The professor immediately sent him to Tulane Hospital where he remained for four months with viral myocarditis. When released he was given a life expectancy of two years and was not allowed to remain in school.

After three weeks at home, William caught a bus to Memphis. Having also been accepted at the University of Tennessee Medical School, and without revealing his medical problem, he persuaded the Dean to allow him to transfer to UT. The Dean soon learned the truth but allowed William to continue in school, gradually building up to a full course load.

William was placed under the care of a cardiologist while at UT and, though there were some problems with his health during the period, he was an honor student and graduated with his classmates. When his physician wouldn't allow him to practice private medicine, he went to UCLA and earned a Masters Degree in public health. He spent the next 10 years in the public health field and teaching. His spare time was spent learning about the subtropical plants in the area.

Having been advised early in his career to save and invest wisely since his physicians believed that he wouldn't be able to work long, William was prepared for forced early retirement. He participated as a "guinea pig" in endless research studies on devices and medications under development throughout the world. He did manage to travel extensively in Europe, the Mediterranean area, the Middle East, South and Central America and Hawaii. He did it at his pace and would remain longer in an area if he became tired. He concentrated on the conservatories, gardens, and the flora of the area on each trip.

In 1996, after several months on life support, William received a heart transplant. "I received a healthy heart from a young man in his early thirties who had an aneurysm," says William. "The family donated the organs to the people of Memphis and five lucky Memphians are very grateful for their generosity in letting us be the stewards of their loved one's organs in order to give us a second chance at life."

The transplant team calls William their "Walking Miracle" and monitors not just his health but his life at regular intervals. The transplant program documents that organ recipients have worthwhile lives that deserve the funding of the program costs. They encourage him to do whatever in life makes him happy. For William that is his plants and the building of Bannoche.

The Miracle Man is not just a miracle to his transplant team. He has taken a special gift, combined it with his own gifts and the magic of Bannoche to give us all the beauty of Anecphya as we have never seen it before.



A stunning blue grown by William from Andre's seeds from his 2000 collection in the Normanton area of Australia. This group may prove to be a new species of Anecphya.

 N. violacea blue form

 Wild blue

Wild pink
Three sisters, all from the cross of N. 'Andre Leu' x N. gigantea 'Neorosea'

The Miracle Plant - The First Ever Hybrid Between Waterlily Subgenera

 William's Anecphya Gallery | William's Gallery of Tropical Plants | Andre Leu's "Field Collecting..." 

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