A perennial herb, the lotus is an aquatic plant cultivated principally as an ornamental. Botanists have debated the classification of the lotus. Some place it in the Nymphaeceae family with the water lily. Others favor the creation of a new family, Nelumbonaceae, into which the lotus would be placed. Lotus seeds contain vitamin C, other antioxidants, and flavonoids, which may protect one against cancer. The lotus has two species. Nelumbo lutea is indigenous to the eastern and central United States. Nelumbo nucifera is native to Asia including the Philippines, northern Australia, and Egypt. The lotus should not be confused with Lotus japonicus, a legume. The two are not closely related.

Origin and History

Fossils of the genus Nelumbo date to the lower Cretaceous Period (145.5 million years ago). Between 145.5 million years ago and 65.5 million years ago, the lotus expanded its habitat and numbers. Fossils dating between 85 and 65 million years ago place the lotus in the Southern Hemisphere in addition to the Northern Hemisphere. Thereafter, as Earth cooled and dried, the lotus’s habitat shrank. The ice ages between 1.8 million years ago and 10,000 years ago further contracted the lotus’s population.

The species Nelumbo nucifera is an indigene of the Old World, growing from Iran in the west to Japan in the east. This species grows as far north as Kashmir, India, and Tibet and south as far as Indonesia and northern Australia. In the Volga River delta, near the Caspian Sea, grows what botanists once termed Nelumbo caspica, the species name doubtless a reference to the Caspian Sea. One hundred miles north of Vladivostok, Russia, grows what was once known as Nelumbo komorovii, a hardy lotus that tolerates temperatures as low as -44°F. Botanists have subsumed both species into Nelumbo nucifera. The Buddhists regarded this species as “the sacred lotus.” Legend holds that 2,500 years ago Indian religious reformer Buddha arose from the heart of a lotus bud. Today, lotuses may be found in lagoons near Buddhist temples.

In Egypt, the lotus symbolized fertility, birth, and purity. Egypt may have acquired the lotus from India in the sixth century BCE, though one author favors Iran as the source of Egypt’s lotuses. So quickly did the lotus flourish along the Nile River that Egyptians came to think that the plant was indigenous to Egypt. The Greeks cultivated the lotus. In the fourth century BCE, Greek conqueror Alexander the Great observed the lotus in India, being astonished because he thought that the lotus grew no farther east than Egypt. In the fourth century BCE, Greek botanist Theophrastus described the lotus, noting six types. The Phoenicians cultivated the lotus along the coast of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. The Romans cultivated the lotus, spreading it throughout Southern Europe.

In the first century CE, Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder called the plant the “Egyptian bean” or simple the “bean.” Pliny evidently associated the lotus with Egypt, though the plant was not indigenous to it. The reference to a bean apparently derives from the resemblance of lotus seeds to beans, though a lotus seed is not a bean. In fact, the lotus and beans are not closely related. Others referred to the lotus as the “Indian bean,” though the lotus is not native to India. Pliny noted that the Romans grew the lotus as an ornamental. Pompeii contains mosaics of lotuses. By the fourth century CE, Sicilians were cultivating the lotus, perhaps having acquired it from Rome. The blue lotus of the Nile River and the blue lotus of India are not true lotuses but rather members of the genus Nymphaea.

Uses, Attributes, and Cultivation

On festive occasions, decorators add lotus seed pods to bouquets and wreathes. More importantly, the lotus forms tubers, which, like the potato, are edible. Native Americans ate the tubers and seeds of Nelumbo lutea. Asians still eat these parts of the lotus. A niche market has developed in the United States for lotus tubers and seeds. Some people eat lotus leaves, wrapping other items in them and baking the food. In Taiwan and China, people eat the rhizome of Nelumbo nucifera, which is known as the “edible lotus” for this reason. The people of Taiwan grow this species in well-rotted cow manure.

First-century Greek physician Dioscorides believed that the lotus had medicinal properties. Medical practitioners have used the lotus to calm heart palpitations, induce sleep, and treat Parkinson’s disease, erectile dysfunction, bleeding, inflammation, nausea, indigestion, obesity, and mushroom poisoning.

The lotus needs two or three months of temperatures between 75°F and 85°F. The plant may be cultivated in parts of the United States and Canada, southern France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, western and southern parts of the former Yugoslavia, Egypt, Iran, China, India, and Japan. The American Southwest is too hot for the lotus, whereas the Pacific Northwest, southern Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Northern Europe are too cold. In these regions, enthusiasts raise the lotus in greenhouses.

Most lotus varieties bloom during the day, but a few flower at night. Typically, a flower opens early in the morning and closes by mid-afternoon on the first day of flowering. For the next five or six days, it remains open day and night. The cultivar Momo Botan, for example, blooms for nearly one week. Some petals change color during the course of flowering. The cultivar Mrs. Perry D. Slocum has dark pink petals on the first day of flowering. By the third day, the petals have become yellow-pink. Nelumbo nucifera has white, pink, and red flowers as well as flowers with two colors. Some flowers are single and others are double.

The gardener may use two or three parts soil and one part well-rotted manure as the cultural medium. Heavy loam is ideal. One may fill a barrel, tub, or container with soil to within three to six inches of the top. To the soil should be added 10-10-5 or 10-14-8 fertilizer in a ratio of nitrogen to phosphorus to potassium. One must guard against applying too much nitrogen, which will burn the roots. Atop the soil should be added one inch of sand and enough water to fill the rest of the container. The lotus prefers full sun but tolerates partial shade.

Beetles and flies cross-pollinate lotus flowers, which often close on these insects, keeping them alive by maintaining a temperature of 90°F. The interior of a flower may be more than 30° warmer than the surrounding air. Lotus seeds may be viable for centuries. Scientists have dated one viable seed to 1,288 years old, the world’s second-oldest viable seed, trailing only a date pit discovered in 2005.

Species and Cultivars

Breeders have derived many new cultivars, some of them suitable for Southern Europe. The Chinese grow more than 300 varieties. The Old World species Nelumbo nucifera is known as the “Hindu lotus,” the “Egyptian lotus,” and, as we have seen, the “sacred lotus.” It is native to India, China, Japan, the Philippines, northern Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Volga River delta. The deep pink flowers are 9 to 12 inches in diameter, contain 24 petals, and are fragrant. The New World species Nelumbo lutea is known as the “American” or “yellow lotus” or the “water chinquapin.” The chinquapin is a type of chestnut, suggesting a resemblance between lotus seeds and chestnuts. The American lotus grows as far north as Ontario, Canada, and Maine and as far south as Honduras.

The cultivar Night and Day derives its name from the fact that its flowers remain open around the clock. The variety is a cross between the cultivars Pekinensis Rubra and Momo Botan. Each flower contains 74 to 83 petals and is dark or medium pink with red stripes and 7 to 7.5 inches in diameter. The fragrance is not pronounced. As a cut flower, Night and Day lasts six or seven days. Waltzing Matilda, known as the “tropical lotus,” is native to northwestern Australia. Each flower is deep or medium pink, is 8 to 10 inches in diameter, and has 21 petals. The fragrance is strong. New leaves are red or red-purple and turn green as they age. Waltzing Matilda does not form tubers. Strawberry Blond is a hybrid of the cross between the species Nelumbo lutea and the cultivar Momo Botan. The flowers, 9 or 10 inches in diameter with 83 to 86 petals per flower, change from deep pink to yellow with pink tips as they age. The cultivar is fragrant.

Christopher Cumo

Further Reading

Griffiths, Mark. The Lotus Quest: In Search of the Sacred Flower. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009.

Slocum, Perry D. Waterlilies and Lotuses: Species, Cultivars, and New Hybrids. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2005.

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