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Excitement in Bloom

Flower Barn co-owner spends a lifetime cultivating beauty

Lori Shontz
The Penn Stater magazine

— At first, all George Griffith wanted was a pond. Just a little one, somewhere in a corner of his family’s land in western Pennsylvania. 

After getting permission to dig one, he saved his money to buy a couple of goldfish to live there.

After a couple of weeks, the fish died. So Griffith – only 8 years old – began studying to find out why, and within a couple of years he was not only breeding his own goldfish, but earning money by selling them to five-and-dime stores, including the one where he had purchased his first pair.

That was only the beginning. Goldfish led to guppies. Turtles. Canaries. Myna birds. Orchids. And water lilies. Griffith paid his Penn State tuition with profits from George’s Aquatic Gardens and Pet Supplies, which made him an important guy in some corners of campus.

The Daily Collegian noted in a 1956 article that Griffith, a 1956 PSU graduate, sold “30,000 goldfish a year” and added “The collegian pastime of swallowing goldfish by fraternity pledges has also boosted his sales.”

The goldfish paid the bills, but they were never his true love and focus.

That was the pond. Griffith has spent his life expanding on that original water garden, and he now has more than 30 lily ponds on his 80-acre property, a former potato farm along a mountain road outside of Ligonier.

“There’s just something magic about a water lily,” Griffith said.

“They’re the diamonds of the water.”

And he doesn’t have just any old water lilies; he develops his own. 

Griffith has hybridized hundreds of them over the years and the dozen or so he has deemed worthy to propagate are part of his water garden. He also has a lotus that’s a direct descendent of a plant more than 2,000 years old.

No, Griffith never does anything halfway. “I love too many things,” he said. “I get too excited.”

Plenty of people are slowing down at his age, 77. But Griffith is still running The Flower Barn, the business in Westmont he owns with his partner, Thomas O’Brien.

That’s an uphill battle sometimes, he said, because of the increasingly popular phrase in death notices, “in lieu of flowers.”

That cuts into profits, but Griffith thinks there’s a bigger cost to society as a whole. 

He explained, “Flowers forever have been an expression of all those things we cannot express as we would like to.”

Griffith has been expressing himself with flowers since he cornered the market on black orchids (which are white orchids dyed) when they were popular in the 1950s. He then moved on to designing flower arrangements for gala events all over western Pennsylvania and beyond

– even at the White House and about

17 states.

“He’s very precise – a perfectionist,” said Donald Miller, a former art and architecture critic for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. 

He has attended dozens of galas marked by Griffith’s distinctive style. “And frankly, that’s what they best do: Make every effort to do it right.”

O’Brien put it this way: “You cannot pull anything over his eyes. From the bookkeeper on down, he is one step ahead of everyone.”

Griffith was only a junior in college when he made his first botanical splash. When word came that President Dwight D. Eisenhower would give the Penn State commencement speech in 1955, Griffith was asked to put together a floral display.

He went big, floating 2,000 water lilies on the pond in front of the president’s home (now part of the Hintz Family Alumni Center). And because the blue and purple tropical water lilies he wanted didn’t bloom so early in Pennsylvania, he had them shipped from Florida.

Life magazine published a photo of Eisenhower and his brother, Penn State President Milton Eisenhower, posing by the flowers.

That’s how Griffith came to have a lotus plant with an ancient legacy. It came from a seed found at the bottom of a Manchurian lake; initial carbon dating showed it to be at least 2,000 years old, and he said it is among the oldest seeds to ever be germinated.

The lotus was growing in Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in a rough neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and Griffith learned that children were vandalizing the garden. So he asked Milton Eisenhower for help, and Eisenhower enabled him to get a “division” of the rare lotus, which he is still growing.

Griffith’s connection in D.C. grew. In 1981, he and O’Brien decorated the White House for a state dinner honoring the prime minister of Japan. Nancy Reagan, who was famous for requesting specific flowers, regardless of whether they were in season, wanted water lilies. 

Those flowers were blooming, but there was still a problem – they bloom only during the day, and the dinner was at night.

Griffith solved the problem by injecting the floral equivalent of muscle relaxants into the stomata, or base, of the cut water lilies. (He still laughs at the fact that he was “drugging” the flowers as the White House mounted its “War on Drugs.”) But the flowers stayed open, the first lady was pleased, and Griffith and O’Brien have continued to do occasional displays for the White House ever since.

Closer to home, Griffith has specialized in creating spectacular spaces for parties and museums, including for the openings of Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall and the Hunt Botanical Library at Carnegie Mellon.

Miller particularily remembers a gala at the Carnegie Museum of Art for an exhibit of French decorative panels the museum obtained from the ocean liner Normandie. 

The tables were adorned with cornstalks sprayed with gilt paint to resemble huge candelabras, and the unadorned walls were bathed in a bright, Carribbean blue. “Man, was that spectacular,” Miller said. “It was out of this world.”

But Griffith’s finest work might be a private one – his roughly 30 lily ponds. He and O’Brien have built the ponds themselves during the past 25 years and many of the colorful lilies are Griffith’s own. There are hardy lilies (which overwinter in the ponds) such as “Lemon Chiffon,” which is light yellow, and “Rachel Hunt,” which is very large and white. The tropical lilies, which must spend the winter in greenhouses, include the blue-purple ones he has named “Blue Skys” and “Elsie” (as in his friend Elsie Hillman, the Pittsburgh philanthropist). Griffith’s peach-colored lily, created about a decade ago, is named “Tom O’Brien.”

Some of those same flowers will be blooming at his alma mater. He has donated about 100 of his plants to The Arboretum at Penn State, which has a 30-foot lotus pond in the H.O. Smith Botanic Gardens. Among those are water lilies that he has developed (they are unnamed for now) and another division of the rare lotus from Manchuria.

Those are varieties that have taken decades to hybridize, but Griffith thinks in terms not of time, but of beauty. “It’s joyful and it’s a love,” he said. “You just hope for the excitement of crossing two plants to come up with a wonderment.”

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