Lotus Lessons

Lotus by David Midgley, 2008, This work is licensed under a  Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License

When collating my dream plants for Seagarden, the lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) was high on my list. With roots in the mud, stems growing up through muddy water, and exquisite fragrant blossoms emerging high above the water untouched, the lotus exemplifies purity and freedom. Heliotropic and self-fertilizing, the lotus is a sacred symbol to Hindus, treasured as one of the eight auspicious symbols in Buddhism, and also revered by the ancient Egyptians, for whom it symbolized the sun, creation and rebirth. And its seeds make a delicious sweet soup I came to love while living in Taiwan, as well as a delectable paste used in many Chinese desserts.

The lotus has inspired significant scientific discovery as well as spiritual. Wilhelm Barthlott studied the Lotus Effect, resolving in an electron microscope the nanoroughness on the leaf surface that repels everything that tries to settle on it, including water, honey, glue, dirt and even fungal spores, leaving it always dry and clean. When a drop of water rolls around it, it picks up the debris and cleans the leaf surface. Today, dozens of self-cleaning products such as paint, glass, roofing tiles, and textiles incorporate the lotus effect. This same quality is now also being used to make solar cells that absorb more energy from the sun, increasing efficiency by up to 25%.

One of the most stunning lotus ponds I’ve encountered is at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, where the images above were taken. The one just above is by Tim Entwistle, Executive Director of the Royal Botanic Trust, who blogs at Talking Plants. The top one is by David Midgley, cc 2008, who also blogs about plants at kipili.com.

As the lotus symbolizes awakening to reality, it was a bit dispiriting to face the reality that lotus plants would be most unhappy in my Wellington water garden. For though they remain untouched by most things, they cannot abide wind and and prefer warm humid temperatures. But I was heartened to discover that water lilies (Nymphaeaceae) might do well.

Water Lily A. SiebertWater Lily George H. Pringwater lily St. Louis Gold

There are two main types of water lilies, hardy and tropical, and between them over 60 varieties. I saw a yellow “Nymphaea Ray Davies,” that I could imagine belting out “Thank you for the days,” but the healthiest plants on offer seemed to be the tropical lilies. So I brought home one each of A. Siebert (pink), Mrs. Geo H. Pring (white) and St Louis Gold (yellow) from Glenbogal, whose site has good information on keeping them happy (as does Nymphaea Fidelity).

  • In this video, Janine Benyus, co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute, talks about Lotusan, self-cleaning facade paint, as an example of the how designers can use biomimicry.
  • Sarah Fain has Starfish Envy is the compelling blog of a lovely lotus chronicling her adventures in self-fertilization.
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