Most of the business being done at Perry’s Water Garden these days is selling plants through the wholesale market. But if you are interested in aquatic plants even the tiniest bit whatsoever, it’s well worth a trip over the Cowee mountain range and into Macon County to visit this unique Western North Carolina garden attraction.
I went there last week with a friend who was interested in buying aquatic plants for a small home-water feature. We left with water hyacinths, a lotus, a couple of lilies, five water snails (guaranteed to eat the slime off the sides of ponds) and a lot of really useful information from Nikki Gibson, whose step-grandfather, Perry D. Slocum, founded the garden in 1980.
Nikki clearly knows her water plants. And that’s no surprise, given the high stature in the water-garden world once held by Slocum, who died in 2004.
He was an internationally respected hybridizer, winner of the 1986 Water Lily Hall of Fame Award. Slocum also was the president of the International Water Lily Society from 1988-89.
Flip through a book on aquatic water plants, and you’ll likely be both flipping through a book he helped write — Water Gardening: Waterlilies and Lotuses, published in 1996, or Waterlillies and Lotuses: Species, Cultivars and New Hybrids in 2005 — and eyeballing plants he hybridized.
The list of plants bearing the Slocum stamp is stunning: by one accounting I found on the Internet, he hybridized 83 waterlilies, 30 lotuses and two irises.
Slocum was born in New York state in 1913 on a dairy farm that also produced certified seed potatoes. In an April 1996 article for Water Gardening magazine, Helen Nash noted that Slocum’s interest in aquatic plants started at age 13, when he and a brother ordered three water lilies from California and planted them in an iron kettle normally used for scalding hogs.
Slocum went to Cornell University for his undergraduate work, and spent two years in medical school at Syracuse University before devoting himself to plant hybridizing. He first built a 10-acre water garden near Binghamton, N.Y.; then went on to build Slocum Water Garden in Winter Haven, Fla. After “retiring” to the Cowee Valley area in Macon County, Slocum promptly built Perry’s Water Garden, 13 acres of aquatic ponds. This, I theorize based on the evidence, must have been a man who liked to stay busy.
Ben Gibson bought the water garden in 1986 from his stepfather, and the two worked side by side until Slocum’s death. Hybridizing still continues at Perry’s Water Garden — when the family sees a particularly lovely or interesting volunteer, they carefully cultivate it.
Nikki clearly loves the family business, which to survive has meant everyone now works outside jobs to help make ends meet and keep the garden going, she said.
This means you’ve got to get to Perry’s Water Garden in a window from about 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday or 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. You can find Perry’s Water Garden on the Internet at www.perryswatergarden.net, and there is contact information there as well. Good directions to this out-of-the-way place can be found on the home page.