The Rock That Made The Ripples
Charles B. Thomas

Page 3

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All images provided by and © 2004 Charles B. Thomas


Mainstreaming Waterlilies

In 1964 I visited Georgetown, Guiana, and Belem and Manaus, Brazil, to see ornamental aquatic plants and various tropical fish collection/exporting facilities. Many varieties of tropical fishes grow naturally in local waters around and upstream from Georgetown and Manaus. The latter is especially known as a source for neons, cardinals, and piranhas.

At Georgetown I witnessed Nelumbos blooming profusely. And in Belem I saw lots of Victorias in a botanic garden. But flying inland above the Amazon upstream for a thousand miles in a non-pressurized World War II vintage DC4 to Manaus took me very close to my ultimate find, the pinnacle of this adventure.

Boating down the black water of the Rio Negro to its confluence with the brown water of the great Amazon took me to an island bearing the trip's hidden highlight. As we headed downstream on the Amazon, the starboard half of the river stayed brown for miles and the port water remained black. I noticed naked, carefree children playing in shallow water near the riverbanks. They and nearby adults displayed no fear of attack by piranhas.

A few miles down the Amazon, we came upon a gigantic island where my guide and I went ashore. We walked a short distance and he pointed out rubber trees that were yielding their sap for rubber production. But the main attraction of the trip still remained a five- or ten-minute walk through the jungle pathway leading to a lake.

Once there, we boarded a small flat-bottom boat and rowed toward an enormous area heavily covered by V. amazonica (called V. regia at the time). Except for those round pads close to the perimeter of the vast patch, the pads were more square than round. They occupied every inch of available surface area, thereby altering their usual round shape. Those Victorias boldly flaunted well-established turned-up edges. And they profusely produced their aromatic blossoms, generously giving a delightful pineapple fragrance in the early morning air.

I stayed at the then-new Amazonica Hotel, visited the renowned opera house, and the local street markets where fish were hanging to dry in the open air awaiting buyers. Piranhas and other tropical fishes failed to look appetizing to me. Many families lived nearby in homes resting on stilts over the water.

My grandfather's N. 'Mrs. C. W. Thomas' was the first waterlily plant patent applied for in the U. S. However, he didn't follow through on it and Perry Slocum received the first waterlily plant patent issued by the U. S. Patent Office. Later I received plant patents on N. 'Virginia' and N.' Louise', named in honor of my mother.

Dad taught me much about fish hatchery operations, but my heart was with the aquatic plants. Upon his retirement in 1966, Uncle Lease Bussard presided over Three Springs Fisheries. He and Aunt Frances (Dad's sister) lived in Maryland during the summer, but for nine to ten months each year they resided in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He taught me a lot of valuable business tactics, and he gave me plenty of responsibility.

N. 'Louise'

I became president in September of 1975 when he retired. Sally and I purchased over 90% of the business. Sales growth showed only modest gains. Too many prospects believed that water gardening was (1) too difficult, and (2) too expensive. The modest six figure annual water gardening sales figure would multiply by 50 times over the next two decades.

Preformed and flexible liner pools had made water gardening easier and less expensive. Still, these two long-held objections needed to be overcome. Accurate instructions along with accurately named and described plant material needed dissemination.

I was convinced that the only way to expand water garden sales was for people to realize that water gardening is something they can afford, something that they can do successfully (and something that they can't live without). But how could millions of people receive this message? Paid advertising alone would be much too expensive.

Dad was a member of Garden Writers Association of America (now Garden Writers Association), so I thought that if I became active with them, attending their conventions, that I could learn much about writing and ways to get my message across to the public. Meanwhile, they could learn much about water gardening from me so they could then write accurately about it.

After attending the first few meetings, whenever there was a water garden at the site we were visiting, people would call back to me, "Charles, there's a water garden here!" Next, they asked me to speak at their national meeting -- a splendid opportunity.

There I stressed two major points. First, water gardening is the easiest kind of gardening if you start right. (What do gardeners find is hardest about gardening, like least about gardening? Weeds. No weeds grow in a typical artificial bottom water garden, not even crab grass.) And I explained the basic principles of starting right. Misinformation from misinformed or uninformed suppliers and garden writers were big impediments for first timers.

The second major point I made was that once you start right, allow four to six weeks for the various elements to get into sync. First timers who feel compelled to adjust the pH frequently or to change the water at the first sign of algae quickly become frustrated. And I explained that the typical home-owner could readily afford a water garden.

I know that there remain a lot of unknown details about water gardening. Scientists who research pond dynamics claim that even they do not fully understand everything that happens in a garden pond. But the simple basics that I, along with many water garden experts, espouse do yield successful results for beginners, intermediates, and experienced water gardeners. Begin with too much detail and you turn off would-be devotees. I favor giving them relatively simple instructions that will most likely make them successful.

Following that lecture, TV gardening hosts Larry and Anstice Esdmond-White asked me to help produce a water garden program for their PBS show broadcasting weekly in 180 markets coast to coast. It earned favorable ratings, so they included a new water garden program each year. Some years they were shot at their beautifully landscaped estate near Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Other years they traveled to Lilypons, Maryland to create it. Happily, some years included more than one water garden show.

Son-in-law Richard continued annually with the program after my last one. I also suggested other water garden related sites, including Denver Botanical Garden for their award-winning show.

In 1992, Richard and I worked with GWA past president Jim Wilson of PBS's Victory Gardens to produce a large water garden display in Columbus, Ohio. The official national garden festival there commemorated 500 years since Columbus' first voyage across the Atlantic. Thousands of people viewed that display daily. Jim (ashore) and I (in the pond) explained water gardening for a Victory Gardens TV show that was repeated for years.

Besides the free water-garden-publicity benefits GWA provided, I substantially increased water gardening advertising in national gardening magazines. The Lilypons catalog was enhanced to include more information to help water gardeners be successful. I knew that successful water gardeners would share their excitement with their friends, and that unsuccessful ones would make sure that none of their friends would attempt water gardening.

Increasing sales provided funds for increased national advertising in garden magazines. The business managers of the magazines noticed full-page color ads for waterlilies, and this provided some push for water garden articles. Meanwhile, nationally prominent writers had become excited about water gardening, providing a pull to publish such articles. Readers who knew a little about water gardening demanded informative reading material.

The confluence of these factors resulted in national and regional gardening magazines featuring at least one water garden article per year. Before, simply seeing one article from the lot of them was remarkable. Now, not only was a significant quantity of water gardening articles being published, but also the information was usually accurate.

Garden writers who had met me at regional and national conventions began calling me to check their articles before submitting them to their editors. Even then, occasionally some editors unwittingly changed the meaning while trying to fit an article into the allotted space. Nevertheless, articles became significantly more detailed as well as more trustworthy.

My association with GWA gave me valuable experience that would be extremely helpful with IWGS meetings. I learned a lot about meetings while organizing regional meetings in District II, mid-Atlantic area, being a committee member of GWA's annual meeting in Philadelphia, and chairing the annual meeting in Washington, DC.

Serving two consecutive two-year terms on their board also gave me valuable experience about how an effective board operates. GWA and Mailorder Gardening Association were blessed with pleasant, yet hard-driving, effective executive directors who superbly ran the day-to-day association affairs. GWA honored me at their 1996 Minneapolis symposium with the Wilfred J. Jung Distinguished Service Metal. They grant it annually to a commercial firm making outstanding contributions in gardening.

Paralleling this, I became active in the MGA. Members include nurseries like Wayside Gardens and Jackson & Perkins and associate members like Horticulture, Fine Gardening, Southern Living, Better Homes & Gardens, etc.

Horticulture's Teri Dunn began writing articles about water gardening and she became a dedicated water gardener. I suggested articles to her, sending Teri to see Joe Tomocik, HF, and John, HF, and Mary Mirgon, HF, all in Denver and Bill Frase, HF, (originator of N. 'Teri Dunn') in Orlando, Florida. Her insightful book, along with other water gardening articles, promoted greater interest in water gardening.

At MGA I maintained friendly contact with magazine people who could, and did, produce many appropriate articles promoting water gardening. Besides being on MGA's board, I advanced through their officer progression to become president. They pronounced me Member of the Year during their 1988 Los Angeles meeting, and during their 2001 Memphis meeting, placed me in their Hall of Fame.

During one of his trips to Japan, Walter Pagels, HF, spotted a unique waterlily, one that he had never seen. He shared a cutting with Joe in the mid-1980's. It bloomed for him at the Denver Botanic Gardens, but it eluded identification.

A few years later Philip Swindells, HF, and I toured Denver Botanic Gardens with Joe. All of the lilies were accurately labeled except Walter's gift. Immediately upon seeing it, Philip exclaimed, "It's 'Arc en Ciel'. " Philip had seen it a decade earlier in Europe, and those who knew about the cultivar had given it up as being extinct. Once identified, it was shared with propagators and it is well distributed now.

I hired Rolf Nelson in June 1977 upon his graduation with a degree in horticulture from the University of Maryland, and quickly recognized that he was an eager learner anxious for management responsibility. Therefore, I decided that he was the person who could operate a branch aquatic nursery in the Houston, Texas, area.

He left for Brookshire on New Year's Day 1978, traveling by way of Winter Haven, Florida, to visit Peter Slocum first. Additionally, I requested that he later visit San Angelo to meet Kenneth Landon, HF. Also in January I introduced a new name for Three Springs Fisheries--Lilypons Water Gardens--and four years later discontinued large-scale fish production.

A year or so afterward, Rolf and his University of Maryland School of Horticulture sweetheart married. Anita became our assistant manager in Brookshire. Years later they began their own thriving business, Nelson Water Gardens & Nursery, Inc.

Another bright young man, Keith Folsom, caught my attention. He studied horticulture, including water gardening, in college in North Carolina. After gaining experience at Lilypons Water Gardens, Maryland, he transferred to LWG, Texas. Later he returned to LWG, Maryland, as a manager and fell in love with co-worker Tish. They also married, and then returned to his native Virginia. There they began their own successful aquatic nursery, Springdale Water Gardens.

Working together with Lilypons staff, and with assistance from interested individuals, including Pat Nutt, HF, Joe, and Walter, we conducted research into the proper botanical names of all plants listed in the Lilypons catalog. This extended Dad's earlier work ensuring accurate photography in the catalog and in his book. Within a few years, other water garden catalogs began appearing with botanical names. IWGS counts correct nomenclature as one of its prime objectives.

In the 1970's in the U. S., mail order catalogers dominated the water garden business. Major mail order sources were located either near the east or west coast. People prefer to buy from a closer source than from a more distant source. As a second location, Brookshire positioned Lilypons approximately in the middle between the two coasts.

Moreover, Brookshire's location within a convenient driving distance of one of America's largest cities facilitates plenty of local sales. Compared to Maryland, its longer growing season provides another distinct advantage. So does the opportunity to produce tropical aquatics with much less artificially produced heat.

When I was in school, Dad arranged for Mother to give water garden talks to area garden clubs. While my brother and I were attending the University of Maryland, he sent her there to learn about public speaking. My degree program required two courses in the subject (and fortunately for me, not in the same classroom with my own mother!). Soon after being discharged from the Army, Dad began to call on me to give the lectures.

More and more speaking requests flowed in from larger and more distant organizations. Although somewhat reluctant at first, I soon began to relish speaking. I especially liked the audience feedback because they could teach me new ideas. And I enjoyed traveling to so many interesting places. Requests came from universities, botanic gardens, and horticultural organizations from coast to coast and abroad. As time passed, I encouraged Rolf, Anita, Keith, and Richard to speak, spreading the good word about water gardening. They, too, were somewhat reluctant at first, but I believe that they all now relish it.

During the late 1960's and early 1970's I attended The George Washington University. There I earned a Master of Science Degree in Administration. The scope of new (new since graduating from Maryland in 1957) management thoughts amazed me. These fresh ideas helped me to enhance the teamwork at the family business.

The spectacular water garden displays at the Missouri Botanical Garden, and Pat's enhanced water garden exhibits at Longwood Gardens (with input from George Pring) greatly impressed others fortunate enough to witness them, and me also. I recognized that significant water garden displays like these would become an important and compelling element of public gardens and parks.

Lilypons Water Gardens introduced displays of water gardens featuring live, in-bloom waterlilies at major flower shows including Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. More people than ever witnessed the beauty and tranquility of water gardens. And for those who were interested, I was eager to explain that they could readily enjoy the rewards of water gardening at their own home.

Copyright 2004 Charles B. Thomas

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