The Rock That Made The Ripples
Charles B. Thomas

Page 4

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All images provided by and © 2004 Charles B. Thomas

A Society for Water Gardeners

On a Wednesday in the summer of 1982 I returned from the weekly Rotary Club of Frederick (28 years of perfect attendance, including make-ups across the country and abroad) luncheon to find a surprise visitor from England. I was delighted to met Norman Bennett, HF, who became an instant friend.

Among other things, I spoke to him about the idea of an association of people interested in water gardening. Norman liked the idea, but questioned if it could be accomplished. Later, he and Gordon Ledbetter, HF, were largely responsible for the initial European memberships in IWGS.

Another unannounced visitor to Lilypons appeared the following year in the person of Walter. I also discussed with him my thoughts about a water lily society. He replied that he had experience in founding a koi club in San Diego some years earlier. Moreover, Walter said that he would like to organize such a club when he retired. Both gentlemen warned of significant difficulties trying to establish a national or international organization.

The following spring a customer told me that he planned to visit Ireland. He asked if I knew anything about water gardening there. I told him that Gordon Ledbetter, a favorite water gardening author of mine, lived in Ireland. In June the customer excitedly called me with a report. Gordon not only received him, but also very graciously discussed water gardening with him. Furthermore, he planned a visit to Washington later that summer!

I realized that Gordon's presence, as an internationally recognized water garden authority, would offer a newsworthy event for announcing the birth of the The Water Lily Society. (There would soon be much debate concerning water lily, water-lily, and waterlily.) We quickly agreed upon a date in September and promptly began publicizing that Gordon would be present at Lilypons, Maryland, for the formal announcement of the birth of the society honoring water lilies. Everyone who joined by the end of 1985 would become a Founding Member.

Hundreds of water garden enthusiasts attended the public announcement including John and Mary from Colorado. Steven Davis, Director of Horticulture of the American Horticultural Society, attended and agreed to be the founding editor of The Water Garden Journal. Rolf and Anita flew to Maryland for the occasion. That evening Sally and I hosted a private reception honoring Gordon and WLS.

At last the vision of an association of experts began to become reality. At last the desire for internationally recognized waterlily identification was becoming a reality. IWGS has made great strides promoting proper waterlily identification. Authorities from around the world would see the same plant during the annual symposia to agree on the proper names.

On-going, accurate identification activities stem from the original IWGS by-laws calling for a Registration Committee that operates "in accordance with the rules specified in the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature." We still consult Henry S. Conard's, HF, The Waterlilies: A Monograph of the Genus Nymphaea and Charles O. Masters', HF, Encyclopedia of the Water-Lily. Ever since 1985 IWGS continues to spearhead identification and registration protocol through the dedicated work of its Registration Committee and all who cooperate with it.

IWGS published its very helpful, authoritative monograph under the direction and patronage of Ray Davies, HF, of Stapeley Water Gardens in England. Member Perry Slocum and Peter Robinson published Water Gardening Water Lilies and Lotuses that identifies species as well as both long-established cultivars and many of the newer introductions with detailed descriptions and photographs.

Both Gordon and Norman advised me that if we wanted Europeans to attend our proposed symposium in 1985, we had to have a program listing dates, times, speakers, subjects, sites, accommodations, meal arrangements, transportation details, etc. Over there, people determine their summer holiday plans before year-end.

Waiting until the New Year arrived would mean few, if any, Europeans would attend our first international water lily symposium. Despite the shortage of time, we lined up an attractive, compelling program quickly enough to have it distributed in the U. S. and abroad in December. Still, big questions cast their shadows-how many people would attend? What would it take to attract people who had never attended such a meeting? Could this idea be marketed successfully? Was there enough time?

Pat Nutt was extremely helpful making arrangements with Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Daughter Virginia made countless inquiries and contacts as well as preparing graphics and information for our publicity. Perry Slocum and wife Maggie and Dr. Kirk Strawn, HF, and wife Charlene among others promptly mailed in registration fees and life membership dues to demonstrate financial and emotional support for the infant society.

Over one hundred attendees paid registration for our initial symposium, and it was a resounding success for all. Moreover, it set the pattern as the major source of funding for society activities for years into the future. Ray Davies, HF, managing director of Stapeley Water Gardens, Nantwich, Cheshire, UK, was doubly impressed. It was here where he met Barbara Dobbins, his future bride. ( The Frederick-News Post reports Society formation )

I asked well-traveled Walter Pagels to run for president. He was nominated and elected by a unanimous vote at our first annual meeting. Not only was he very knowledgeable about water gardening and well known to many industry leaders at home and abroad, but also he was not associated with any of the competing aquatic businesses.

Charles Thomas and Irene Heritage
Susan Hesselgesser agreed to chair the 1986 St. Louis, Missouri, symposium. I worked very closely with her to plan and execute all aspects of it. I was particularly excited when Bill Heritage, HF, agreed to deliver the keynote address. I rank his Ponds and Water Gardens as one of the best books written for water gardeners. He and his lovely wife, Irene (in whose honor Perry named a striking hardy red waterlily), nearly melted in the very humid, above 100 F. degree air.  

With pleasure, I continued being active in organizing symposia in the U. S., UK, and Germany for years. The largest-attended (over 300 paid registrations) was in Houston, Texas, with a post symposium tour to College Station, San Marcos, Banderra, and San Antonio.

The American Horticultural Society took note of what was happening at Lilypons, its water garden displays at flower shows, and with IWGS. AHS recognized that water gardening was advancing into the mainstream of the American landscape. They granted their Commercial Individual Citation for Outstanding Work in the Field of Horticulture to me at their annual symposium in San Francisco, California in 1986.

The following year I worked with the Denver Botanic Gardens, members of the Colorado Water Garden Society and IWGS members to produce our third Symposium. Despite her desire to attend it and earlier meetings, health considerations again prevented Frances Perry, HR, from being with us. Nevertheless, we declared her a Hall of Fame member during our Denver convention.

The following month I flew to London with her framed award certificate and an oil painting of a waterlily. Gordon and Norman joined with me to visit Frances at her charming home. There we gave her a personal presentation of her award in the name of IWGS. Ever since childhood, I had heard my parents and paternal grandparents speak of her. The four of them visited Frances several times after World War II.

Later Norman drove me to meet his family and visit his waterlily nursery in Weymouth. Following that I traveled to Harrogate to meet with Philip Swindells about planning the upcoming IWGS symposium in the UK.

When Dr. Ed Schneider, HF, agreed to take over the IWGS secretary's job, I stepped down from most of the day-to-day society operations. However, I did agree to be nominated and elected vice president, and then president. While president, I was inducted into the IWGS Hall of Fame during our meeting in Munich, Germany in 1991. Eight years later in Kassel, Germany, Gesellschaft de Wassergarden-Freunde presented Die Seerose in Silber Award to Jim Lawrie and me in recognition of fostering interaction across the Atlantic.

France claims two water garden "Meccas," Claude Monet's Giverney and Latour-Marliac's Establishment at Temple sur Lot. In 1996, over a hundred IWGS members met in that country, giving us the incredible opportunity to jointly visit these compelling sites. While we enjoy seeing Monet's masterpieces at museums, and duplicates almost everywhere, nothing matches the experience of strolling around his famous gardens and home. Likewise, a water gardener's time at Temple sur Lot makes a delightful, indelible impression. 

Charles Thomas at
Latour-Marliac's grave

During a visit to the Orient I spent a week touring Thailand. I was thrilled that Dr. Sam Wasuwat agreed to guide my travels. Thanks to Betsy Sakata, HF, I had the necessary information to contact him. After seeing the water garden points of interest in Bangkok, Dr. Sam showed me his extensive collection of waterlilies and other aquatic plants at his home. While there, he presented me with a copy of his water garden book.

Dr. Sam inscribed it thusly, "Dear Dr. Charles B. Thomas, I am indebted to the lineage of Dr. George L. Thomas, Jr., for his teaching and extensive knowledge of the wonderful world of the waterlily. This book, even though it is in Thai, it is the result of those things I learned from Dr. Thomas. May God bless all of the Thomases. Yours sincerely, Slearmlarp Wasuwat. October 16, 1994." And he attached a photocopy of the inscription that Dad had written in his book for Dr. Sam back in 1971 at Lilypons.

California hybridizer Jack Wood telephoned me one day asking if I would lend my name to a new viviparous blue tropical waterlily beautifully mottled with chestnut on green pads. N. 'Charles Thomas.' Similarly, Perry called to ask if he could use my name for an about-to-be patented lotus. Nelumbo 'Charles Thomas'.

And then Kirk advised me one day that he was naming a cultivar that I had admired a few years earlier. The name -- Charles' Choice. I was delighted, as I had been when the others called. However, being the marketing major, I suggested that Charlie's Choice would be easier to roll off the tongue. He agreed. Nymphaea 'Charlie's Choice.'

During most of my life, catalog nurseries provided the main source for water gardeners. The slim market for waterlilies did not justify retail nurseries stocking them. Moreover, few garden retailers knew much about waterlilies. Even if they knew, they realized that it would take lots of time explaining the details. However, duplicating the experience of many other catalog products, once the demand for waterlilies grew past a critical quantity, retailers and landscapers found that gardeners expected them to offer these products.

The ornamental aquatic plant business eventually matched the pattern of the nursery industry. Large producers specialize in growing plants, distributors deliver plants to retailers, and retail outlets sell them to the public. Meanwhile, the percentage of plants sold by catalogs more closely matches the percentage of land plants sold by mail order. Big box stores soon recognized a fast-growing market, and they joined the expanding movement. More recently, Internet sites offer water garden shopping. Despite bumps and setbacks along the way to making water gardens popular, many more people than ever now enjoy water gardening.

Copyright 2004 Charles B. Thomas

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