Perry Slocum
Leaves Outstanding Legacy

Part 1 by Charles B. Thomas

Peter and Perry Slocum

Water gardeners around the globe mourn the passing of Perry Dean Slocum on November 29, 2004. At the same time, they are celebrating Perry's life and his outstanding legacy of achievement.

Perry was born during waterlily-blooming season on July 2, 1913, to the dairy-farming family of Floyd and Alberta Perry Slocum near Cortland in upstate New York's rural Cortland County. After graduating from high school, he entered Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, with the idea of becoming a medical doctor.

However, well before he graduated in 1935, waterlilies had captured his imagination, and soon became his life-long passion. He began growing them along with other ornamental aquatics as a teen. He gave up becoming a doctor so that he could grow and share his beloved aquatics. Perry began business at Marathon, NY. After a few years, he moved the fledging business to Front Street on the northern outskirts of Binghamton, NY.

With my parents and brother, I met Perry and Trudy Slocum there in the summer of 1946. It was less than an hour's drive from my grandparents' summer home at Heart Lake, near Montrose, PA. Every summer while visiting at Heart Lake, we would call on the Slocums.

Waterlilies, lotuses, and other ornamental aquatic plants thrived throughout their manicured, park-like premises. Willow trees lined the "show ponds." A miniature lighthouse stood on an island in the middle of the largest pond.

The Slocums lived in a modest upstairs apartment in the small building that housed their growing aquatic business focusing on mail-order catalog sales. I remember Perry telling us that his Christmas tree sales made the difference for them to have a profitable year.

Perry's keen eye for photography added dramatic life to his catalogs. His instinctive ability to grow ornamental aquatics meant that Slocum customers would receive robust plants. It became obvious that although he didn't become a doctor to the body, he became a doctor for the human spirit through his beloved Nymphaeas, Nelumbos, and other aquatics.

The children Perry and Trudy yearned for were not forthcoming, so they applied to adopt a child. Years passed, and it looked as if their name would never reach the top of the list. Then, one happy day in 1954, they learned that three elementary-school siblings, whom the placement agency would not separate, could be theirs. But first they must provide a suitably large home to accommodate a son and two daughters.

They promptly built a lovely brick rancher on their premises overlooking the scenic Susquehanna River. Peter, Sharon, and Suzanne made Perry and Trudy instant parents. In the bargain, Trudy (Her brother was a Marine Corps general.), who had been a piano teacher, finally found space for her piano.

Following years of struggle through the Great Depression, World War II, and getting their business off the ground, the newly enlarged Slocum family was sitting on top of the world. As part of their good life, the family vacationed every winter in Florida's warm sunshine while snow covered cold upstate New York. Forever thinking about waterlilies, Perry figured that Florida would be his dream place to operate an aquatic nursery.

As too often happens when everything is going right, a terrible threat surfaced. An interstate highway was going to go through their home and nursery, ruining years of devoted work. What could they do?

Part 2 - The Florida and North Carolina Years

by Peter D. Slocum, edited by Charles B. Thomas

Perry's dream to locate in Florida began during a 1949 vacation trip. In Winter Haven near Cypress Gardens he spotted a swamp bordering a gracefully curved road. But instead of seeing a wild swamp, he envisioned the beauty of a water garden display and production site. This would be where someday he might retire and still continue in the water garden business.

But still being only in his 30's, he figured that the reality would be to first reach retirement age at his current Binghamton, NY, location. After all, moving the business from the Marathon farm to the city required considerable effort. Another move would take considerable deliberation, being that Perry wasn't impulsive, other than once.

When Perry and brother Beryl had recently graduated from Cornell and both were headed for graduate school at Syracuse University, both wanted to go to the 1935 Chicago World's Fair, Dad (Floyd) said, "No!" That was too far away, and they must milk cows twice daily--except in hunting season. Beryl hunted with a gun, Perry with a camera. Beryl always maintained that venison tasted better than pictures.

Without telling Floyd, the two brothers arranged with others to milk the cows. Under the pretense of taking a short evening trip, they lured Floyd into the car. Soon, he fell asleep. Upon awaking, Dad discovered that they were Chicago-bound. Silence prevailed on the way out. But once there, all three enjoyed a fantastic time. Thereafter, Perry always carefully planned ahead time-wise and money-wise.

In 1956 Perry learned that the newly announced Interstate Highway System included I 81 that would go through Slocum Water Gardens. Being forced to relocate, Perry remembered his Florida dream, and meticulously explored making it reality. He began by searching for the several owners to persuade them to sell.

Owners of the parcels variously operated an orange grove, a couple of older homes, a cabin/motel on-the-lake operation with a curio shop, and a restaurant. The curio shop owner demanded that Perry not compete by selling curios, the restaurant owner required Perry to forsake operating a kitchen, plus he had to purchase an unwanted plot on the other side of the road.

Perry's 1949 meeting with Cypress Gardens' owner Dick Pope paid off in the 1959 negotiations. Pope and Perry developed a warm friendship based in part on their mutual respect for each other's promotion acumen. Only after Pope talked with the curio shop owner did he agree to sell. Pope's influence often made or broke a deal in those days. Buying the unneeded land across the road stretched Perry's finances, but he settled with each owner. A few years later Perry sold the unwanted plot for more than he had paid for the entire lot!

Perry completed the original concrete ponds in 1959. Between then and 1963 he returned to Binghamton for Christmas tree season, then back to Winter Haven for winter, to Binghamton for spring waterlily sales, then again to Florida during the slower time of summer. In between, he grew and trimmed the tree crop. Additionally, he operated an aquarium plant business. Perry maintained three or four business operations simultaneously.

During the 1950's, several New York friends photographed birds feeding their young in the nest. Perry remarked how boring it must be sitting still for hours awaiting birds to fly in at the right position for snapping a good photo. He also remarked that he would never waste his time doing something like this again. Nevertheless, Perry decided to try one nest. His picture won a gold medal from the Photographic Society of America. He was hooked. Then his developing passion for photographing nature overlapped all of his business operations.

Perry's incredible patience and keen artistic ability earned hundreds of awards. He became the world's number two nature photographer in the late 1960's and 1970's. He published his acclaimed Birds of North America and How to Photograph Them in 1971. Demand continues for Perry's waterlily, lotus, bird, and other nature photos to illustrate the likes of National Geographic Magazine, Time-Life Books, Airline in-flight magazines, and horticultural publications.

Slocum Water Gardens, Winter Haven, opened during the summer of 1963 as development of the property continued. In 1900 a sinkhole developed that formed the swamp known locally as Lake Rey. Like other sinkholes in the area, it featured a very unstable, mucky bottom unsuitable for waterlily production.

However, any Florida property owner in the early 1960's could hire a contractor to do whatever was wanted to alter swampland. Perry's contractor pumped out water and sand into a nearby lake, and then dumped in clean fill dirt contoured by bulldozer. Environmental restrictions prohibit such procedures today.

After two weeks of continuous 24/7 operations, and with the soft muck migrating to the edges, the curio shop/cabin neighbor demanded an instant, complete halt to the process. With most of his hoped-for objectives met, Perry pretended to all that his swamp modification project had reached his intended plan.
Perry's first aquatic plant introduction was Nymphaea 'Pearl of the Pool' (1946 plant patent 666) followed by N. 'Pink Sensation' (1947). In 1962 he crossed Nelumbo lutea with N. 'Rosea Plena.' He was so busy moving his nursery from New York to Florida that he remained in suspense until 1964 to sprout the crossed seeds resulting in the superb N. 'Mrs. Perry D. Slocum', at right.


During 1963 Perry sold his New York interests, including houses, gardens, and tree plantation. Except for the tree portion, he very successfully continued his other expanding interests-pool plants, aquarium plants, nature photography, and travel.

The Slocum family continued to regularly visit members of the Tricker family (Tricker's) in New Jersey, Thomas family (Lilypons Water Gardens, then called Three Springs Fisheries) in Maryland, the Stetson family (Paradise Water Gardens) in Massachusetts, and the Schierer family (Schierer's Water Gardens) in New York. Benefiting from increased prosperity, the Slocum's visited the Ted Uber (Van Ness Water Gardens) and Martin Randig families in California. Travel expanded to England with a visit to Frances Perry and others. Other travel included Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Perry always sought pool and aquarium plants new to the American market.

Adversity came when Alzheimer’s struck Trudy. Following her death in February 1979, Perry sold Slocum Water Gardens to son Peter. He purchased a secluded mountain retreat near Franklin, North Carolina. There he continued crossing waterlilies, went to church, and met Maggie Belle Gibson. They married, Perry moved to her farm, and with new stepson Ben, began Perry’s Water Gardens. Again, Perry’s world was bright. Here, Perry produced most of his hundreds of impressive hybrids—waterlilies (84), lotuses (30), and two water irises. Click here for the Complete List.

While spending summers in North Carolina and winters in Florida, he worked on his two epic books. Perry and Peter Robinson with Frances Perry wrote the 322-page highly respected Water Gardening Water Lilies and Lotuses, 1996, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, USA. Perry also authored the authoritative 260-page Waterlilies and Lotuses--Species, Cultivars, and New Hybrids, 2005, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, USA. All the while, Perry snapped thousands of award-winning wildlife and water garden photographs. Click here for Galleries.

Perry and Louise were married in 2001.

He helped the International Waterlily and Water Gardening Society from year one, being on its first board, serving as its president, and honored as the first living person awarded membership in its Hall of Fame. 

In 2001, following Maggie Belle's passing and another period of bachelorhood, Perry found Louise who remained as his loving wife for the rest of his life. No matter what adversity Perry faced, he not only overcame it; he made events work out for the best—for himself, his family, and for all water garden lovers.

Copyright 2005 Peter D. Slocum and Charles B. Thomas

Complete List of Slocum Cultivars
Perry D. Slocum - An American Legacy
Perry's Galleries | In Memory 1913-2004

Profile - Charles B. Thomas

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