I have been besotted with the lotus ever since I encountered it in Bali over thirty years ago. It is not an exaggeration to say that every stage in the life cycle of this plant is miraculous. Is it any wonder that it has been revered by both the Hindu and Buddhist spiritual traditions? It has been used in religious iconography for millennia. Many temples all over Asia and beyond, feature sculptures and paintings of Buddha enthroned on a seat of lotus in full bloom. The esoteric prayer the “lotus sutra” has been recited and pondered for aeons.
There are two extant species of lotus plant in the world: Nelumbo nucifera (Sacred/Indian lotus) and Nelumbo lutea (American lotus). Sacred lotus has an extraordinary distribution from Iran to various parts of Asia including Russia and even as far as Australia. This is a plant that rewards even a modicum of study as it is so unique on many levels. In Japan, there is a traditional practice of lotus viewing called “kanren” which typically happens in the early morning hours as lotuses often close by the afternoon. I was lucky enough this past weekend to attend a “kanrenkai” (lotus meeting) at the Kyoto Botanical Garden. A former director of the garden proved to be a lively and informed guide on all matters pertaining to Nelumbo nucifera. He started his lecture by demonstrating how various South East Asian countries create Buddhist flower offerings. It was a little disconcerting to be honest, when he repeatedly peeled down petals from a full bud and proceeded to fold them “origami style” into a stylized shape. I couldn’t help but wince (after all wasn’t the lotus flower sacred and not to be manhandled), and secretly wish that the bud be allowed to bloom of its own accord.
He then demonstrated the ancient practice of how lotus leaves had been used as special occasion vessels for drinking Japanese sake. One of the monikers for a leaf used in this practice is “elephant nose cup”, which derives from the resemblance to an elephant sucking water through its trunk. While the sake passes through the stem of the leaf, a faint lotus scent and a slightly bitter natural liquid are mixed with the sake to give the drinker a refreshing feeling.
The erstwhile director then informed us of the ancient history, etymology and biology of the lotus plant. Apparently a fossil of a lotus leaf from about 70 million years ago was excavated in Japan. The Japanese name for lotus is “hasu” which comes from the observation that the lotus fruit formed after flowering resembles a bee hive.
The flowering season for the lotus is from mid-July to mid-August. One flower repeats a cycle of opening and closing for about four days before dispersing its petals. Flower color ranges from dark red/purple through pink and white. There are also mottled colors including white to yellow and in recent years even green ones have appeared as hybrids. How the flowers bloom varies according to type, whether they are single or double flowers and weather conditions in a typical four day cycle.
Day Two is considered to be one of the most attractive stages of the blooming cycle. Flower petals loosen from 2AM and fully open around 7-8 AM. This is when the flower volume becomes its most graceful and the spicy, peppery fragrance becomes strong. It starts closing from around 8AM and returns to its original state of storage in a bud shape at around noon.
I have also been long fascinated by the leaves of the lotus. When you touch the surface of the leaves, there are some that are rough, some that are slippery and some that are in between. Younger leaves tend to be smoother. The leaves are water carrying and have a peculiar surface texture. There is wax on the surface which repels water so that when it rains or water touches the leaves, it runs off without being absorbed. The effect is not unlike the convex movement of mercury or as it used to be called so graphically “quicksilver”.
Since the lotus is an insect borne flower, it is not surprising that some kind of scent will be emitted. I remember the first time I smelled the fragrance I had not been expecting it and found it intoxicating. The fragrance could be described as having a phenolic component that is slightly medicinal in its sweetness and yet mysteriously regal. I had long been curious about this scent and some quick research confirmed that lotus has been used a component of perfumes for centuries.
This is a plant that continues to amaze me the more I know about it. The lotus also has a distinct place in Japanese cuisine. Many parts of the plant can be eaten including the young seed pods, the young leaves but in particular the crunchy rhizome roots known as “renkon”. A friend of mine makes a “to die for” deep fried lotus root stuffed with spicy pork mince and served with a hot mustard.
Enough of such physical and earthly concerns. After all the lotus represents purity of body, speech and mind as if floating above the muddy waters of attachment and desire. According to Buddhist legend, Gautama Buddha was born with the ability to walk as a new born and everywhere he stepped a lotus flower bloomed.