Beauty That Inspires Myth

There is a lotus pond at Littletree Orchards in Newfield, New York, which is surprising because it is a hill town in the temperate latitudes, and the sacred lotus is native to southeast Asia and Australia. Apparently there is a microclimate that allows this tropical to subtropical plant to make it from year to year. (The banner photo of this blog was taken there.)

The sacred lotus

Nelumbo nucifera is an emergent aquatic plant; it is rooted in the mud below standing water, but its leaves and flowers are borne up above the water’s surface, sometimes several feet above, on tough fibrous stems. Asian cultures found metaphorical resonance in the fact that it is easy to bend a lotus stem, but very difficult to break it. The flowers at Littletree are a luminous white tinged heavily with pink. The blossoms of lotus can vary in color from white through shades of pink and into creamy yellow. They can be 8 to 12 inches across with curved satiny petals.

When the petals fall away after fertilization an architecturally complex seed pod is revealed. The structure is a fluted, inverted cone surmounted by a flat plate dotted with large circular holes. While the flower of a lotus superficially resembles a water lily, there are several differences. The lily, for example, has no equivalent to the ligneous seed pod of the lotus. In addition, water lilies either float on the water’s surface (Nymphaea) or are held a few inches above it (Nuphar). Lily leaves float on the water surface (“lily pads”) and are not held above as lotus leaves are.

Nelumbo lutea seed pod

There is a North American lotus (Nelumbo lutea), which is native to the southeastern United States and the Caribbean. The flower is smaller than the Asian species and more delicate. Like the Asian species all parts of the plant are edible, so tribal people extended its range northward during the pre-Columbian period.

The lotus is prominent in Asian religions. Much symbolic meaning is imputed to the lotus based on its growth habit.  The differences between lotus and water lilies were noted; the way the lotus leaves and flowers are held so regally above the water. “In Buddhism, lotus flowers mean purity of speech, mind and body rising above the waters of desire and attachment.” Buddhism holds that there are five different colored lotus flowers, pink, blue, red, white and purple, with red being an overstatement of their natural variation and the purple and blue referring to the Egyptian lotus (Nelumbo caerulea), which spread across south Asia from the Nile to Thailand in early historical times.

The white lotus “symbolizes Bodhi, the state of total mental purity and spiritual perfection, and the pacification of our nature.” The red lotus “symbolizes the original nature of the heart (hrdaya). It is the lotus of love, compassion, passion, activity and all the qualities of the heart.” The pink lotus “is the supreme lotus, generally reserved for the highest deity, sometimes confused with the white lotus it is the lotus of the historical Buddha.”

The lotus as an emergent plant.

The blue lotus “is the symbol of the victory of the spirit over the senses, of intelligence and wisdom, of knowledge. It is always represented as a partially opened bud, and (unlike the red lotus) its centre is never seen.” Some references do not even mention the purple lotus. “This is the mystic lotus, represented only in images belonging to a few esoteric sects. The flowers may be in full bloom and reveal their heart, or in a bud.”

The physical grace and size of the lotus, and that it appears to be almost suspended above the water, inspired the spiritual meaning given to the flowers. This combination of beauty and symbolic weight makes the plant a popular one to cultivate.  It can be grown from seed or from the rhizomes that allow it to spread invasively once it is established.
Famously lotus seeds are viable for a very long time if they are kept in a cool dry place (which only adds to the mystical reputation). Seeds over a thousand years old have been found in Chinese tombs and been made to germinate.

The procedure associated with getting the seeds to grow are specific but not particularly onerous. One interesting aspect of the process is the necessity for abrading both ends of the seeds in order to break through the tough outer hull and allow water into the germ. Once treated the seeds are placed in a glass of water, and the fluid should be replaced daily (it will become cloudy). They should begin to grow in less than a week.

Once the seed has started to grow it can be treated in a couple of different ways, depending on whether or not  you have a water garden. The seedlings can be transferred to large pots filled with “gardening media.” These pots should not have holes in them; to say that this plant likes wet feet is an understatement.

But the proper place for a lotus is in a pond. After they are planted in pots or tubs these can be sunk into the water body. Unlike water lilies, lotus roots do not like to be very far below the water’s surface, only about 6 inches.

They will die back completely in the fall and may take some time to begin growing again in the spring (again with the mystery), but has the Newfield lotus pond shows, the Asian lotuses can be grown in temperate climates.