Plant Answers  >  Ken Landon - Waterlilies Grower Amasses World-Class Collection

Waterlilies Grower Amasses World-Class Collection

by Tracy Hobson, Express-News Home & Garden Editor
Copyright 2006 San Antonio Express-News
Reprinted with special permission.

Click image to enlarge.
Giverny had Claude Monet. This West Texas city has Ken Landon.

Monet created lasting water lilies on canvas. Landon's are born of seed in concrete ponds or 'm pools in his greenhouse, and he dedicates much of his work to making the mystical aquatic plants last.

"They're my kids," Landon says of the plants in the International Waterlily Collection. And what a colorful brood it is.

Pink, yellow, purple and white flowers reflect in the pools at Civic League Park, colorful accents amid the varied green leaves. There are smooth leaves and ones with ruffled edges. There are glossy green circles and ones speckled with maroon. And there are the giants of the family, the platter-like Victorias that produce leaves up to 8 feet across.

Landon, 58, is no braggart. But like any proud parent, he likes to boast about his kids.

Take 'Ineta Ruth', named for his mother and the only yellow star lily produced. "That took seven years out of my life," he says.

Fellow lily expert Patrick Nutt, retired from Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, elaborates on Ineta Ruth,' a hybrid developed from a lily called 'St. Louis Gold.' "He's the only man who's been able to get fertile seeds from 'St. Louis Gold,"' Nutt says of Landon.

'St. Louis Gold' is an older lily developed by Nutt's mentor, George Harry Pring of St. Louis. Pring, he says, introduced more Nymphaea hybrids than anyone in the world, "although Ken will probably rival him in time."

"We've tried to preserve his hybrids, and between the two of us we probably have the best collection of Pring's hybrids in the world," Nutt says.

Landon estimates he has created about 60 "keeper" hybrids. "In horticultural work, you keep maybe 5 percent of what you create in a lifetime."

Another star in Landon's family tree is Nymphaea violacea. "I was told I couldn't grow them in North America," Landon says, pointing to the thriving plants and underscoring his defiant nature. "It took me two years to get 'em up, but they are up."

The plants, which he describes as temperamental, like 90-degree water and little movement in the water. Landon grew the tubers last year, overwintered them and then grew the plants this year.

"To see this flower blooming here, to John Q. Public it doesn't mean anything," he says. "For a botanist or botanical enthusiast or water lily expert, it's meaningful."

Nutt, who describes as "a pilgrimage" his visit to West Texas from the 1,000-acre garden in Pennsylvania created by Pierre duPont, says Landon "probably has one of the finest displays of water lilies in the world."

While he concentrates on creating hybrids, he also is intent on preserving the species. A decade ago, Landon founded the International Waterlily Preservation Repository, through which he collects specimens and shares seeds.

When flooding on the Nile River threatened the sacred blue lily of the Nile (N. caerulea), Egyptian officials called Landon and came here to get 2 million seeds to restart the plant. Of the large order, Landon says, "It's not hard to do because each seed pod has 60,000 to 70,000 seeds."

Landon treks to jungles and remote locales in search of rare specimens, and he relates stories of hopscotching across an alligator's head (he thought it was a rock until its mouth opened) and other harrowing adventures to get his hands on seldom-seen aquatic plants.

"The gene pool is going away," he says of the genus that is threatened by flooding, swamp draining for development and encroaching populations in third-world countries. "They're not worried about lilies, they're worried about surviving," he says. Efforts to wipe out invasive species such as water hyacinth sometimes wipe out noninvasive nymphaeas, and hybrids also take over established species.

Landon worries that future generations won't know the plants he knows. But he's trying to perpetuate the species.

"His focus is to preserve ... Nymphaea from all around the world, not just Texas, not just the South, not just the United States, but the entire world, which is a pretty awesome task," says Paula Biles, executive director of the International Waterlily and Water Gardening Society based in Bradenton, Fla.

From two seedlings of Nymphaea gigantea, a species native to Australia, Landon created 'Blue Cloud,' a lavender-blue flower. "We have it in the pool at Longwood," Nutt says of the hybrid. "It's our pride and joy."

Visitors to the West Texas park can see giganteas blooming in their entire color range - pink, blue and white. Often, garden guests from Australia have never seen a single variety of the plant in their homeland, Nutt says.

Landon notes the park display represents only about 1 percent of his plant family, which he says is the largest collection of the genus Nymphaea in the world. He grows the plants in a greenhouse in Miles, about 20 miles northeast of here and at gardens around the world.

While this semiarid region, with an annual rainfall average of 18 inches, seems an improbable place to establish a world-class water lily garden, Landon settled here to be near family. In 1988, he took over a pond built in the 1930s as a reflective pool in a Works Progress Administration project and with the support of the local Council of Garden Clubs transformed the muddy mess into what is now the main pond. Five smaller ponds surround the center pool, and there's room for one more that will be built as funding allows. Landon says he has turned down potentially lucrative offers to relocate the collection. He owns all the plants, and the city pays his salary as curator.

Guests, with cameras clicking, wander the labyrinth of sidewalks among the pools. Some focus their lenses on the flowers. Others use the lilies as backdrops for family photos, capturing the next generation with the plants Landon has preserved for them. National Geographic photographers have come calling to document rare species.

And if this is an unlikely location for a world-class water garden, Landon is an unlikely gardener. Trained as an industrial engineer with a minor in botany, his love for water lilies began when he was a teen building a pond in Albuquerque, N.M. After a bit of searching, he found a retailer who ordered an aquatic plant for him.

That plant died when the family moved to Fort Worth in the 1960s, but Landon's mother spotted a newspaper story about a woman selling water lilies, and Landon began digging a pond. He overnighted his new plant in the garage before the pool was complete and was smitten by the sweet fragrance of the flower that greeted him the next morning.

"I was hooked," he recalls.

Landon's work has earned him a spot in the International Water Gardening Society Hall of Fame. That, however, isn't what he views as his greatest claim to fame.

Landon also finds time to 'indulge his passion for pyrotechnics. He received a call from the White House to supply strobe star fireworks for President Reagan's second inauguration.

Locals, in fact, know Landon as well for his annual Fourth of July fireworks display as for his water lilies. Giverny couldn't say that for Monet.

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