An Eye on Plants: Sacred Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera)

On the hottest summer nights when stillness in the garden signals the season’s climax, one plant offers relief. Rising from the murky depths of mud-bottomed ponds and steely surfaces choked with duckweed, slender green stems climb skyward, swaying just slightly, crowned with floral perfection — the sacred lotus.

Beauty, Elegance, and Dirt Repellant

Universally recognized for its beauty and elegance, the lotus blooms flawlessly in ponds, marshes, gardens pools, and in earthenware pots on temple grounds. Its superhydrophobic leaves, unrivaled in the botanical world, repel even the stickiest mud and are known as the “lotus effect.” Scientists and engineers study the plant’s water and dirt repellent quality, attempting to mimic it in clothing, paint, and other man-made surfaces.

This resistance to stain makes the lotus a symbol of purity in an otherwise polluted world. Buddha statues sit and recline on golden lotus in airy Thai wats and in the alcoves of candle-lit Tibetan monasteries. Synonymous with the auspicious and divine, the sacred lotus is India’s national flower and frequently used icon.

According to legend, India’s most revered river, the Ganges, first flowed across the earth after Lord Vishnu’s lotus feet were washed, giving the holy river the name Vishnupadi. Another one of the river’s 108 names is Vishnu Padabja Sambhuta which translates as “born from the lotus-like foot of Vishnu.” Indeed, the Hindu deity is frequently depicted standing or seated on a giant lotus blossom, holding a smaller lotus in hand.

Botanical Name and Uses

The botanical name Nelumbo nucifera is rooted in the Tamil nelum (blue) and Latin nux (nut) and fera (bearing), referring to lotus seeds which are called makhana or fox nut in India where they are eaten as a snack. Other parts of the plant are also valued as medicine and food. Lotus tubers or roots are eaten steamed, fried, pickled, and braised, and especially popular in East Asian dishes.

Famed botanist, explorer, and founder of The Kampong, Dr. David Fairchild collected sacred lotus while visiting Japan in 1902. In his notebook he wrote: “These plants are from a noted lotus grower in Tokyo, who claims to have hundreds of varieties and whose lotus show in late August is said to be unusually fine… All shades of pink, yellow, and green, and many variegated forms were represented.” Fairchild collected twenty varieties, including beni botan, ashimaru, tamausagi, and sakuraten.

Lotus at National Tropical Botanical Garden

Today at The Kampong, west of the Fairchild-Sweeney house, a pond is planted with two species of lotus — the ivory-white Nelumbo lutea, native to North America, and a stunning variety of N. nucifera called Bali Red, introduced by Kampong Director Emeritus Larry Schokman.

Look for lotus ponds at the Garden’s South Shore Visitor Center on Kauai as well as in the Allerton Garden across the Lawai Stream from the Allerton residence. That lotus pond evolved from what was once a Hawaiian fishpond. After being damaged by a tsunami in 1833, the area was used for growing watercress, taro, rice and then in the 1930s and 40s, commercial lotus production.

John Gregg Allerton is credited with restoring the pond in the 1970s after it had become abandoned and overgrown with bulrush, replanting lotus seeds from Japan. Repeatedly destroyed by tsunami and hurricanes, the pond has always been rebuilt by Garden staff and volunteers, cleared by hand and replanted so that the pond would again give rise to the swell of hundreds of pink lotus blossoms.

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