The Lotus
Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on 10/4/1998

No aquatic plant is as striking to me as the lotus. Its gracefully curving stalk, outrageously gaudy leaves, spectacular flower and exotically shaped seed pods simply stun my imagination. I recently paddled through acres of American lotus along the flood plain of the Roanoke River that flows along the North Carolina-Virginia border just an hour north of Durham.

Worldwide, there are only two species of lotus. Nelumbo lutea is the temperate, New World species with pale, yellow, fragrant flowers. The Old World lotus, Nelumbo nucifera, is the pink, tropical, sacred lotus of Asia. These two species are almost identical looking, except for the color of the flower and the slightly larger leaves of the American lotus.

The American lotus has an extensive range in the eastern and central United States, from the Great Lakes south to the Gulf of Mexico and even into parts of Caribbean. The most impressive patch of Lotus that I have seen in the Triangle area grows in beaver impounded Steephill Creek in Wake County.

This plant prefers quiet backwaters of slow moving streams and rivers and no doubt was quite widespread in precolonial days when extensive beaver ponding covered much of the low-lying areas of the Piedmont. The lotus is no longer common in our area, but with the present recovery of beaver populations and the proliferation of reservoirs in recent decades, we may see a return of the lotus in the coming years.

I visited the Roanoke River site in August to gather the fresh seeds for personal consumption. I paddled my boat into shallow backwater on the flood plain of the river that was only about two feet deep. Spread out before me were thousands of lotus stalks protruding from the water, supporting huge, bowl like leaves, interspersed with flowers and pods. My view was also peppered with purple pickerel weed blooming amidst the lotus. If anyone knows of a more beautiful garden on the face of the earth, I want to know about it!

I respectfully picked a blossom that was ten inches wide. I then lay back comfortably in my inflatable waft and placed the flower over my face. Taking deep breaths, I imbibed this sweet delight as dragonflies whirred back and forth around my head and an occasional green frog went "clunk, clunk, clunk'' amidst the lotus stalks. Crickets serenaded with a continuous, high-pitched shrill.

After that exercise in aromatherapy, I proceeded to gather the pods. Each one contains between ten and thirty seeds, and when harvested while tender, are quite tasty raw. In a short time I had gathered seventy pods to bring home. They were soon to be transformed into a paste by pounding the seeds with a mortar and pestle and adding tahini, garlic and lemon juice. It made a sumptuous spread for bagels!

The lotus seed is rich in protein and minerals but all parts of the lotus plant are palatable. The young, unfurling leaves can be eaten raw as a salad green in the spring. The seeds are edible either raw or roasted in the summer and have a pleasant, chestnut-like flavor that can even be used as a coffee substitute. In the fall, the root tubers are harvested and eaten boiled, baked, pickled or stir-fried and have a pleasant, sweet-potato consistency and taste.

The word lotus comes from the Ceylonese vernacular where it designates the Asian lotus. The expression passed over into Greek but was applied to a number of different plants that are not true lotuses, including the night blooming African water lily that was depicted blue in ancient Egyptian art.

A plant referred to as lotus was used by Homer's legendary Lotus Eaters to induce dreams and oblivion. Odysseus' crew, on their way home from the Trojan War, were lured by the Lotus Eaters to consume this plant and lulled into a dreamy indolence that made them forget their homeland of Ithica. In western literature, the expression "lotus eater'' has become a metaphor for forgetfulness and mindlessness. It is possible that the lotus plant that Homer was referring to was the opium poppy, as its seed pod has a similar shape to that of the true aquatic lotus.

Today, the word lotus' is a scientific designation for a genus of plants in the legume family that are unrelated to the aquatic lotus. The genus Nelumbo represents the aquatic lotus with two species, Nelumbo nucifera, the Asian or sacred lotus and Nelumbo lutea, the American lotus. Both have a bisexual flower pollinated by insects, especially beetles, and produce peculiar, inverted, cone-shaped seed pods in the middle of the flower. These pods dry up and break off, float along and drop seeds that sink to the bottom of rivers to form new plants.

Originally, the American lotus was probably only indigenous to the Mississippi Valley, but was then carried north and east over the Appalachian Mountains by native Americans to cultivate in the ponds and rivers of the Eastern Seaboard. The rhizomes of the American lotus were a major source of starch for both American Indians and beavers. I like to imagine the Occoneechi Indians, who originally lived on an island in the middle of the Roanoke River near present-day Clarksville. Va., as earlier harvesters of the patch from which I  now visit and partake.

Historical records concerning the symbolism of the sacred lotus of Asia are more numerous than its New World counterpart. Seeds of this species have been recovered in Manchuria that have been shown by radioactive dating to be more than 1,000 years old and still capable of germinating. The sacred lotus is the national flower of India and holds the richest symbolism of all the flowers of the Orient. It carries a vast array of both subtle and exquisite meanings in both mythology and religion. In art, the lotus symbolizes the female principle of life from which emerges creation, prosperity and enlightenment.

In Hindu creation mythology, the Supreme Being was personified as a golden lotus upon a great sea. The Lotus Sutra is one of the most important scriptures of the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism, the lotus itself being a symbol of divine purity and truth. In translation, the Lotus Sutra has become the most popular Buddhist scripture in China and Japan. Chinese Buddhists believed in a heaven where there existed a sacred lake of lotus. The souls of the dead resided in the unopened flower buds of the lotus while awaiting entrance into paradise. The lotus represents elegance, the womb with its life-giving waters, and the resting place of the enlightened.

Through the years, I have come to realize that it is of utmost importance to choose a symbol for one's personal faith that is both beautiful and uplifting.
I have therefore found it necessary to dispense with our traditional Western cultural symbols that represent torture or predation.  But the Lotus continues to invite us to reestablish and maintain our connection with the beauty and harmony of the natural world around us and inspires us to peaceful living. I keep a lotus plant in a whisky barrel water planter just outside the door of my home to remind me of all this rich history and symbolism and to inspire me as I come and go.

Top photo by Bruce Ause - American lotus
Bottom photo by Riverdave: self portrait while sitting in my inflatable waft amidst the lotus blossoms - note my contented look!