Gardens & Conservatory

Plants & Collections

The lotus is valued for beauty and more

By Tom Brinda and Lynn Kirk, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden
Published July 2008 in the Richmond Times-Dispatch

The sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) is one of the most beautiful and striking plants for enhancement of water gardens and ponds. Its magnificent flowers, which appear to be delicately carved with single, semi-double or double blooms, emit a mystical fragrance as they rise on slender stalks above handsome, umbrella-like leaves. The overall size of the lotus is dramatic with some stems growing up to five feet high and leaves up to eight feet wide. Peeking between the flowers and foliage is yet another point of interest: the seed heads. Resembling a watering can’s spout, they add a fascinating element to water gardens, as well as dried flower arrangements.

Beyond beauty
According to Warner Orozco-Obando, a doctoral candidate in the horticulture program at Auburn University, the lotus is valued for more than ornament in the world’s commercial market.

“The average gardener doesn’t know that all parts of the lotus are edible,” said Orozco-Obando. “It is harvested as a nutritious food source in Australia, Iran, Pakistan, India, Japan, China, Korea, southeast Asia and Hawaii.” The long leaf stalks are chopped and added to salads, while the leaves add flavor and fragrance when wrapped around foods for steaming. Petals are used to make tea, tempura and both white and red “lotus wine.” The rhizomes (or root-like stems) resemble sweet potatoes and are rich in a high-quality starch that is easy to digest. When thinly sliced, boiled, steamed or roasted, the lotus rhizomes may be enjoyed alone or combined with meat or other vegetables. The plant’s root runners are prepared as a vegetable that is similar to asparagus. Lotus seeds, which are about the size of large peas, are eaten raw after removal of the bitter embryo, or sometimes roasted, fried, caramelized or salted and dried. In several cultures, the lotus also is prized for its multiple medicinal properties.

Due to these and other economic and environmental benefits, Orozco-Obando and his colleagues at the Auburn University research project are evaluating large-scale commercial production of ornamental and edible lotus in the United States.

“When lotus is produced in association with catfish and tilapia in the Black Belt region (the crescent-shaped region extending from Texas through Alabama to Virginia), it has the potential to increase the economic revenue from already established fish ponds, diversify farm production and make fish farm operations more economically sustainable.

“This plant also is very good for reclamation of wetlands. Through phyto-remediation, the lotus may offer a big environmental benefit as it uptakes organic compounds,” such as run-off fertilizers that can negatively impact soil and water. “Roots also have the potential to be used for production of ethanol.

“The more you learn about the lotus, the more you want to know,” said Orozco-Obando. “I’ve literally fallen in love with lotus, its culture, history and beauty—so much so that I’m getting my Ph.D. on this one plant.” For more information on Orozco-Obando’s research, log on www.ag.auburn.edu/hort/landscape/AU_Lotus_Project_Page.html.

  • The unusual seed head of the lotus is curiously attractive, plus it produces edible seeds that taste like almonds.
  • The lotus, a food source for centuries in Asia, is now being evaluated as a commercial crop to bolster the agricultural economy of the southeastern U.S.
  • Though the Nelumbo lutea lotus was native to 38 states and served as a staple of the Native American Indians, “today many neglect this lotus and even consider it a weed,” said Warner Orozco-Obando, a researcher with the Lotus Project.