Botany Blueprint: The Lotus

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Specimen #22: Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera)


When I began collecting seed pods, the lotus was something of a holy grail. I knew it through photographs—exotic and beautiful, it’s fair to say I coveted it. I wasn’t going to find one floating in any Hollywood pools, and I wasn’t planning a specimen collecting trip to Eastern Asia, where the plant is common enough to be sold—dried seed pods, seeds, and roots—in street markets.

Last winter, however, I did take a trip to New York, where I found them—almost. I happened to wander into a small Chelsea shop of imported natural curiosities. The walls were stacked with dusty bins of dried botanic notions that rattled and clacked—except the lotus pods, which had been emptied of seeds, and coated with a shiny lacquer. Both of these treatments—the absence of seeds, and coat of varnish—had the effect of displacing the pods from their natural environment. Lovely though they were, I had to disqualify them from my project; Nelumbo nucifera was still on my list.

Not for long. Several months later, I was granted permission to collect specimens in Santa Barbara, at a garden called Lotusland. Tucked away behind a ribbon of signature lotus-pink walls, the exquisitely landscaped gardens and historic estate were named by Madame Walska (1887-1984), an opera singer with a passion for design and plants. She designed a diverse botanic sanctuary, the efforts of which visitors are invited to enjoy today—Today, visitors are invited to enjoy her efforts in designing a diverse botanic sanctuary—the rare cycads, the fairy-tale topiaries, and, of course, a water garden with the sacred Indian lotus.

In Madame Walska’s gardens, every turn is a beautiful surprise—including the one that led me to Nelumbo nucifera. A small pile of seed pods lay by a gardening shed. Recently gathered from the nearby ponds, they were still beautifully tinged with oranges and purples, and patterned with flecks of residue. It’s an honest texture that nature wears well—one that tells of exposure to weather, decay, and, well, life. Beneath the variegated chroma, the pod’s structure is an example of beautiful organic design. It is a work of organic modularity, with a repeating topography of rugged plateaus, deep chambers, and the small seeds that occupy them. Turned on its side, the mottled seed pods look like the cross-section of an apartment building, or a favela hillside in Brazil.

Lotus seeds are botanically renowned for their patience—or, ‘persistent seed dormancy.’ When they tumble into the water from a bowed stem and ripened pod, Nelumbo nucifera seeds will not germinate right away—sometimes, not for many centuries. Instead, they collect together in what becomes an underwater seed bank. It’s a survival strategy, one with two-fold functionality in the genus Nelumbo.

First, seed dormancy prevents new plants from competing with their parents. A single lotus plant can spread quickly, cultivating an entire fresh water pond in a couple years. Any young plant would have little chance of survival in such a densely populated environment. Instead, the seed remains safely buried underground. When catastrophe strikes, as it eventually will, viable Nelumbo seeds can regenerate a stricken population. This natural-disaster-contingency is a common explanation for plants that exhibit seed dormancy.

The second reason is more particular to the lotus. With their nutritious rhizomes, a pond of Nelumbos is a food bank for aquatic herbivores. A family of muskrats or beavers will establish residence and remain for several generations, leaving only when they’ve eaten the entire root system. If new seeds were to germinate, they’d be consumed as well. It’s a good idea, then, to wait until the hungry muskrats depart the pond in search new tubers. Then, the seeds have a safe—and open—space to grow.

In 1995, an ancient Nelumbo nucifera seed was recovered from a dry lakebed in northeastern China (formerly Manchuria). After 1,200 years of dormancy, the seed germinated. This is a superlative age for a lotus seed, but one that reflects its well-evolved dormancy strategies, and one that prompts a vision of my Chelsea lotus pod seeds, germinating in a far-away lagoon, in a far-away millennium.

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