Delicate Flowers

After 100 years, Tricker's is still treading water.

Tricker treats: The nursery includes six greenhouses - bursting with color. - Walter  Novak
Tricker treats: The nursery includes six greenhouses bursting with color.
Fish are never happy. "The old folks are always eating their own kids or else trying to keep other fishes from doing it," wrote William G. O'Brien, a chemist from Akron who loved the gilled world. That was 1920.

Such insight into the emotional well-being of a guppy raises the question: Did O'Brien have too much time on his hands? Regardless, once he channeled his interests into a water-lily and tropical-fish greenhouse in Independence, he went from slacker-in-training to Renaissance man.

There, he became not just a productive citizen, but a sort of freshwater Benjamin Franklin. He concocted a remedy for fish eczema that's still a hot seller 80 years later. And through cross-breeding, he developed a crimson water lily with pale green leaves, christening it "Patricia" after his wife, who had auburn hair.

Listed in several trade journals as "the man responsible for the pH test" that measures water's acidity, O'Brien also sold tropical fish around the world, shipping them in galvanized metal containers that resembled milk pails. In his day, train conductors would actually make stops to change the fish's water.

But the Independence nursery, now simply called Tricker's, did not inspire O'Brien alone. It's been a peculiar sanctuary since water-lily pioneer William Tricker founded it in 1895. O'Brien took over after Tricker's death, but his plans to build a greenhouse empire along Brecksville Road were cut short when he died in 1928, after an unfortunate encounter with a hydraulic car lift.

Six vintage greenhouses remain. A stroll through them reveals blossoms the color of evening gowns, with grand names like "Pink Platter," "Mrs. Woodrow Wilson," "Sir Galahad," and "Enchantment." Several majestic breeds of water lilies were first fashioned here. There's "Blue Beauty," a tropical variety with a flushed sapphire hue like cold starlight, and "Janice," the first mass-produced white lily.

"Bellagio," a gold-centered lotus that's hardy enough to bloom in Alaska, was hybridized just a few years ago -- by Richard Lee, Tricker's current owner. A biologist who worked as a medic in the Vietnam War, the graying Lee looks rather drab against his flower ballet. Headquartered in a musty office that's covered in cat hair, the faltering business was bought by Lee in 1985 and made profitable, as it was in O'Brien's day. In the years between, "there was a lot of hanky-panky going on."

He's referring to the old-time philandering between O'Brien's widow and William Tricker's son, Charles, but there have been other troubles, too. Tricker's survived the Depression, thanks to "St. Louis," a showstopping yellow water lily sold to rich folks at $50 apiece. But what about surviving the next decade?

Most recently, his big problem has been progress. Houses have gone up in a new development behind the nursery. The city would like the whole neighborhood to be residential, Lee speculates, though there's no official plan for that.

One nail in the nursery's coffin, Lee contends, was the city's push to make Tricker's private drive a public street. In 1994, after a lengthy court battle, Lee surrendered to their wishes. But he still grumbles about exhaust fumes from increased traffic hurting his plants. He even balked at adding a new streetlight -- it might disturb his night-blooming water lilies, which thrive in total darkness.

The latest chink in his armor comes from a neighbor who wants to build a house on a bordering property. For that battle, Lee brought out James Storer, a conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Storer says the land shouldn't be built on. But the city disagreed, giving the neighbor a variance to build, as long as he didn't fill in the stream.

"You own a piece of property, you're entitled to use your piece of property," says Mark Moreal, head of the Independence zoning board. "I think we did everything in the best interest of Mr. Lee and [his neighbor]."

To symbolically help his cause, Lee has been moonlighting at area libraries, trying to piece together Tricker's crumbled legacy from mentions in antique gardening books and aquatic magazines. His thorough research has paid off, making Tricker's a candidate for the National Register of Historic Places.

"It's an amazing survivor," says Steve Gordon, who's on the Ohio Historical Society panel that recommended Tricker's for the honor. "I don't recall when we've had a nursery nomination before. They deal in highly specialized plants -- not the typical bedding plants. And they were a leader in the propagation of aquatic plants."

Before refrigerated trucks, Cleveland had a thriving greenhouse population -- one of the largest in the country, explains Gordon. Most closed, though, casualties of suburban growth and families who no longer wanted to be in the business.

Tricker's lasting heritage is chronicled on a wall beside Lee's office, where portraits of the previous owners hang, in all their muttonchopped and bushy-bearded glory. Some of their test tubes are still stored in the attic, along with 100 years' worth of old catalogs. A slate-bottomed aquarium outfitted with wrought-iron candleholders remains in the showroom, left over from pre-electricity times, when they heated aquariums with candles.

"I really, truly enjoy the history of the property," says Lee, who uses free moments to rave about his greenhouses, which were made of cypress and glass a century ago by Lord and Burnham, the premier greenhouse builder.

"They've got hand cranks and sandstone footings," he enthuses. Even the antique cement tanks that house the plants thrill him. He tried to hire a casket maker to custom-make some new ones, but no luck.

Besides the lilies, crustaceans called Daphnes swim in cement pools, and papyrus plants flicker in a makeshift bog, along with enormous lily pads that were popular in the Victorian era, when children were photographed sitting on them at this very location. "If this place just sold petunias and marigolds, I never would have bought it."

Lee sees the city as ungrateful. "We've got a water lily named 'Independence,' a water lily named 'Cleveland.' I think they should be proud of that." If the hand cranks don't win them over, maybe the cannibalistic fish will.