DR. CLYDE IKINS
A tribute by Anita Nelson
Everything is bigger in Texas, according to geologist and botanist, Dr. Clyde Ikins. At six feet five inches, minus the ever-present, broad-brimmed hat, Clyde is no exception. Born in the small west Texas town of Saragosa, he grew up during the days of rampages through the countryside by the famous Mexican bandit, Pancho Villa. Clyde's personality was shaped by the fiercely independent nature of immigrant stock; his father, a strong-willed Irishman, had escaped from Chicago to become a cowboy. Clyde recalls the early years of his father shipping cattle to market and sleeping with them in the hay. Through personal sacrifice, frugality, and sheer determination, Clyde's father became a well-known rancher and banker. A daughter and then son, Clyde, completed the Ikins family.
Bernice and Clyde Ikins
Click photo to enlarge
As a child, Clyde walked three miles to a one-room schoolhouse near Mineral Wells, Texas. These treks allowed him to observe and reflect on flora and fauna and its natural Texan beauty. From both those long walks and helping in the family garden, he developed an early interest in the earth and her plants.
One of Clyde's father's last requests was that his children receive the education he never had. For Clyde this was not a difficult wish to fulfill. The tall, ruggedly handsome, young man already had an inquisitive mind and a love of learning; in high school, he had developed an interest in chemistry and had become a laboratory assistant for his teacher. At the age of seventeen, Clyde left his west Texas home to study chemistry at the University of Texas in Austin.
Attending college was his first exposure to city life. Instead of kerosene lamps, electric lights brightened his evening study hours. In spite of the overwhelming pace and distractions of a bustling college community in a large city, Clyde adapted quickly and immersed himself in his studies. By his second year, he began to participate in social activities. At one of these events, he met Bernice Wilder, a cultured young woman from Corpus Christi. While Clyde remembers thinking at the time that this lovely young lady was much too fine for a "good ole country boy" like himself, he began to court her. Bernice was delighted to have so much in common with such a fine looking young man, and the two married in 1938 when both were 22 years old. Together, the sophisticated city girl and the shy cowboy forged a marriage as warm and as enduring as Texas itself.
Even though their marriage appeared to be a union of two opposites. Bernice and Clyde shared deeper threads of their lives. Bernice was also a product of ancestral run-aways. In the late 1800's, her grandfather, H. H. Hunt, had run away to Texas to escape an oppressive Pennsylvania Dutch family. As a dedicated gardener who grew many varieties of flowers and the "best fruit you ever tasted," his love of gardening infected his daughter, Bernice's mother. Almost seventy years and numerous moves later, Bernice still has many of her mother's original plants, each treasured among vivid childhood memories of the multi-colored flowers spilling over old-fashioned, crushed-shell walkways.
Bernice traces her personal awareness of plants to the age of twelve when she attending a camp in the Texas Hill Country. Today, she distinctly remembers the excitement of discovering a wildflower, Mountain Pink, Centaurium beyrichii, growing in the unlikely rocky soil of the camp.
Although Bernice and her family moved to Corpus Christi in 1928 from inland Houston, Bernice's attention focused more on the prospects of college than on the beautiful, exotic, subtropical plants that grew in the seaside climate. Her father, a man ahead of his time, felt she should learn to make her way in the world.
After their marriage, Clyde and Bernice settled in Austin as Clyde continued his studies at the University. One day he noticed water lilies growing outside the Biology Building. Familiar only with cacti, scrub, and grasses, these unique plants growing in the water immediately and forever captivated him. The incredible yellow, red, and changeable flowers Clyde now suspects were N. 'Chromatella', N. 'Escarboucle', and N. 'Comanche'. Bernice already knew about water lilies; her brother's in-laws grew them. She introduced Clyde to a dealer, Ramsey's Nursery, still in existence today. That introduction and the construction of a 15 by 20 foot pond launched the Ikinses' life-long interest in water gardening. They would never have a home without a lily pond.
Two of Clyde's botany professors, Dr. Benjamin Tharp and Dr. Frederic McAllister further sealed the Ikinses' fate; they introduced Clyde to another plant genus, Iris. Soon Clyde collected, grew, and hybridized tall bearded iris. After earning his Ph.D. in 1941 and with him employment by the Tidewater Oil Company, Clyde and Bernice moved to Houston where the hot, humid climate proved fatal to his bearded iris collection.
Bernice, however, knew of another species of iris that would tolerate Houston's subtropical climate. Her father, a civil engineer who had traveled extensively through the swamps of Louisiana building railroads, had told her tales of exquisite wild irises. As a petroleum geologist, Clyde often traveled that same Gulf Coast region. When he discovered wild stands of the fabled native iris, he began replacing his dying, tall bearded irises with the relatively unknown Louisiana irises.
Throughout the next twenty years as he worked for several oil companies and finally formed his own, he and Bernice continued gardening, collecting, and growing water lilies and Louisiana irises. During that time, they bought a ranch in the Davis Mountains, part of the northern Trans Pecos region in the southwest corner of the state. The Trans Pecos borders Mexico on the south and the high plains in Texas on the north. A spectacularly beautiful region of high grassy ranges, desert, mesas, and mountains under a sky so clear that the University of Texas located its McDonald Observatory there, the Davis Mountains offer a unique climate. With an elevation of 5,000 to 6,000 feet, cool summers and moderate winters accompany 16 to 20 inches of annual rainfall, twice that of surrounding areas. Wildflowers abound and most of the more than 100 species of cacti indigenous to Texas grow there.
The Ikinses named their new home El Rancho Encantado (Enchanted Ranch) after nearby Encantado Peak. Nestled between the Gomez and the Borach peaks, the Ikinses' hacienda was surrounded by gardens and courtyards. Featured at the San Antonio Hemisfair in 1968, a photograph of the home is included in Barton H. Warnock's book, Wind Flowers of the Davis Mountains and the Marathon Basin, Texas.
In 1961, Clyde and 13-year-old daughter Linda persuaded Bernice to try living full-time on the ranch. Bernice had reservations. She knew west Texas could be a hard and lonely country for women. Sparsely populated even in the early 1960's, state records reflected an average of only one person per square mile. With no electricity, no telephone, no air conditioning, and only crude plumbing, west Texas days were long.
Each morning at 5:30 a.m., Bernice drove Linda down a long canyon road to the bus stop with a return trip at 5:30 each evening. Linda rode the longest school bus route in Texas, seventy miles each way. Bernice wryly comments that all of these children became exemplary students with nothing to do but study during those long bus rides.
When Linda entered high school, she and Bernice moved fifty miles into town so that Linda could participate in extracurricular activities. Weekends were spent back at the ranch with Clyde. In 1969, after living at the ranch for eight years, the Ikins family had their first telephone installed. Bernice notes that she finally had the luxury of telephone service the same year that Man landed on the moon.
Over the years, the Ikins gardens matured and flourished. The climate of El Rancho Encantado lent itself beautifully to water gardening, even though local residents had insisted it could not be done. Eventually, water gardens filled with lilies, lotuses, and irises surrounded the house on all four sides. Clyde feels the gardens were at their finest on Linda's wedding day. Especially for the occasion, Clyde ordered a night-blooming water lily, N. 'Red Flare', from Van Ness Gardens in California. Since small package carriers did not service remote areas, Clyde drove the 350 mile round-trip to the airport in El Paso to pick up the æRed FlareÆ in time for the weddings. Clyde says, "That 'Red Flare' almost broke up the wedding, with guests stampeding out of the house to see it in bloom."
In spite of the hardships, inconvenience, and remoteness of life in the Davis Mountains, the Ikinses always refer to it with affection and a touch of sadness. After twenty years, however, Bernice and Clyde decided to move closer to civilization and to Linda and her family. They found an 850-acre ranch in the famous Texas Hill Country just outside the historic town of Bandera.
There they created a home similar to their former home in the Davis Mountains, also naming it El Ranch Encantado. At this time, their life-long dedication to water gardening and collecting came of note. From the early days of their marriage, Bernice and Clyde had collected and preserved both common and rare varieties of water lilies. They bought from anyone who had a rare variety and kept the varieties separated. Very quietly, they had amassed one of the most complete collections of water lilies anywhere in the world.
Besides the water lilies, Clyde and Bernice were also growing over 2,000 varieties of irises. Clyde became an American Iris Judge in 1982 and has only recently retired. In the early 1980's, during a trip to an Iris Show in Louisiana, Clyde and Bernice stopped in at the new Texas location of Lilypons Water Gardens. Rolf Nelson, then manager, greeted them with the exciting news -- a society for water gardeners was being considered. Were they interested?
The Ikinses enthusiastically embraced the idea and became founding and charter members of the International Water Lily Society (IWLS). Because Clyde had attained stature as an iris grower, collector, and iris show judge, he was asked to give a presentation on the Louisiana Iris at the first IWLS Symposium held that year at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Clyde remembers Perry Slocum excitedly approached him afterwards and asked to buy twenty different varieties.
Through the IWLS, the Ikinses became acquainted with many of the members. Clyde's meticulous record-keeping and diligent maintenance of the purity of his varieties made him an invaluable resource to society members. Pat Nutt, then display foreman of the water lily collection at Longwood Gardens, soon began sending hybrids back and forth. Kirk and Charlene Strawn still make an annual visit to El Ranch Encantado each fall. Kirk and Clyde have traded water lilies for over ten years, with Kirk often sending new hybrids to Clyde and Bernice first. Recently, Kirk honored them with two new introductions, N. 'Clyde Ikins', a large hardy apricot water lily and N. 'Bernice Ikins', a medium-sized glowing red hardy.
Another close friendship borne of the IWLS association is the bond with Don and Shirley Bryne, the owners of Suwannee Lab, a wholesale aquatic plant firm in Florida. Besides a shared interest in water gardening, both Clyde and Don are passionate and knowledgeable collectors of fossils and rocks, while Bernice and Shirley share a love of gardening. "Old geologists never die, they just fossilize", smiles Clyde.
In 1992, Don, Shirley and Peter Slocum arrived at the Ikins home a week early to help them prepare for the IWLS Post Symposium Tour of their home and gardens. Over 150 members of the Society were invited to El Rancho Encantado to wander through the gardens and to view the extensive collection of over 180 varieties of water lilies and 1,500 varieties of irises, besides many lotuses and other aquatic plants. During the tour, exclamations in many languages appreciated the often first-time viewing of varieties only heard of or read about. Afterwards, Clyde and Bernice hosted a down-home barbecue and dance to treat the members to a taste of Texas cuisine and culture.
Today, although the irrepressible Ikinses have expanded their collect collections to over 200 varieties of water lilies and some 400 varieties of Louisiana Iris, their interest in plants continues to grow. They also grow Burr Oak seedlings, Quercus macrocarpa, to replace the Live Oaks stricken with Oak Wilt Decline throughout the hill country. Each year the Ikinses donate these seedling trees to the Texas Highway Department, the San Antonio Zoo, local parks, and the Bandera Cemetery Association. They continue to expand their own gardens, too, with trees, shrubs, and perennials. And for the past eight years, they have been operating a small wholesale-only business, Lakeside Gardens, that is open by appointment only.
Yes, everything is bigger in Texas --- from open spaces to open hearts. Clyde and Bernice Ikins exemplify this spirit from their legendary hospitality to garden clubs, camera clubs, flower growers, artists, birders, and water gardeners who receive permission to visit the lovely setting and collections to their equally legendary dedication to gathering and preserving the rare species and cultivators of water lilies and irises. The only thing bigger in Texas might be the life and love they have shared these 58 years.
Anita N. Nelson is a contributing editor to Water Gardening.