Oct 19, 2011

The Lotus Flower

So now that we know that lotus and water lilies are actually different, let us talk more about these plants individually, starting with the mystical Lotus.

Lotus is one of the most ancient flowers known to mankind. Fossil records of lotus indicate its presence as far back as the lower and upper cretaceous periods (145.5 to 65.5 million years ago).  It is a perennial, freshwater aquatic herb. The submerged stem is rhizomatous (meaning, the stem is horizontal with leaf and flower stalks emerging directly from it). Leaves are peltate (shield shaped) with the stalk from the rhizome joining the leaf in the center. The leaves rise above the waterline. Lotus flowers have 2-6 white sepals and about 10-30 spirally arranged white, pink or red petals and they too, like the leaves, rise several feet above the water level. Numerous stamens surround the female receptacle which is one of the the distinguishing features of a lotus flower. The flowers open for about two days during the day time and close at night. Lotus flowers are pollinated by beetles and other insects.  As I discussed earlier, lotus has been placed in its own family, namely, Nelumbonaceae, separate from Nympheaceae which includes the waterlilies.

Nelumbonaceae contains only one genus, Nelumbo and two species, Nelumbo lutea (Water Chinqupin ) and Nelumbo nucifera (Sacred Lotus). It  Nelumbo lutea also known as the American lotus is spread between Ontario in north to Honduras South. This species blooms in summer and has pale yellow solitary flowers that are about 10 inches wide. Nelumbo nucifera or the Indian lotus is found in Asia and Northern Australia. The fragrant flower is about the same size as the American lotus (10 in wide) but is pink or white in color. So, lotus flowers are mostly pink, white or yellow and their hybrids may be a mix of these combinations. The Blue lotus does not exist. What has been referred to as the Blue lotus in various religious texts, is in fact, the blue water lily Nymphaea caerulea.

The antiquity, widespread availability, beautiful form and fragrance along with a few unique properties have all contributed in creating a special niche for this flower in ancient cultures. Lotus flower has been regarded as a symbol of purity, enlightenment, longevity and resurrection in many  religions and cultures. Lotus is a revered flower in Hinduism. Many a Hindu deities are shown to be seated in "padmasana" or the lotus pose on a lotus flower or holding a lotus flower.

Hindu scriptures mention lotus as the divine flower that appeared from the navel of Lord Vishnu (also known as Padmanabh: Padma= The lotus flower; Nabh=navel) from which Lord Brahma originated and created the universe. 

Lotus flower is one of the eight auspicious symbols (the Ashtamangala) in Buddhism. It represents purity and enlightenment. Buddha and Bodhisattavas are depicted holding a lotus flower or seated on a lotus flower. The colors and the various stages of the flower have different meaning in the religion.

In ancient Egypt, the image of a lotus in a pool symbolized rebirth and new life. This motif has been found on pillars in temples and on bowls in non-royal and female tombs. When found in tombs, it is believed to depict the desire of the deceased to be reborn. The flower is associated with the Sun-God Ra who is said to have appeared on a lotus flower. The submergence and appearance of lotus from the waters is associated with the rising and setting sun. The sun child Horus also emerged from a lotus flower which is thought to depict his mother, Isis also known as Hathor.

Interestingly, research on lotus unravels the science behind the unique properties of lotus that make it a much sought after flower in various religions and cultures. The purity of lotus flower is not just a religious concept. "Lotus effect" refers to a very high water repelling property of lotus leaves that causes the water droplets to roll off them. As they roll around, they tend to sweep up the dirt particles that have low adhesion to the leaf due to its highly specialized structure. Voila!! a self-cleaning and PURE flower fit for religious offerings is readily available. Lotus seeds have an amazing viability. Seeds as  old as 1300 years could be germinated in research labs. Studies have shown an enzyme, L-isopropyl methyl transferase, to be the key player in maintenance of  this prolonged viability of lotus seeds. No wonder when people of yore saw lotus plants emerging from  drought ridden lakes and ponds on advent of rains, they were ready to believe in the miracle of resurrection.

Lotus flower also has a unique ability to maintain its temperature at 30-35 degree C when the ambient temperature may be as low as 10-15 degree C. The flower attracts pollinating insects and as they feed on the pollen, the flower closes in the evening. The higher temperature inside the flower provides a comfortable abode for the insects to feed and mate. As they move around the flower they get laden with pollen and at sunrise, as the flower opens, the warmed up insects are ready to fly and visit other flowers, thus bringing about the pollination.

Science may unravel many more secrets of this mystical flower in future. However its antiquity and history will ensure that it remains the most fascinating and bewitching flower.

The Lotus Quest: In search of the Sacred flower. 2009 Mark Griffiths. St Martin's Press, 175 , Fifth Avenue, New York, N. Y. 10010.

Nelumbo nucifera http://ntbg.org/plants/plant_details.php?plantid=11893.

Handbook Of Egyptian Mythology. 2002, Geraldine Pinch. ABC-CLIO Inc. 130 Cremona Drive, P O Box 1911, Santa Barbara, California, 03116-1911.

Faience Bowl  with pool and Lotus Motifs. The British Museum. http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aes/f/faience_bowl.aspx.

The Mother pot: Evolution of the Dragon. 1919. G. Elliot Smith. http://www.sacred-texts.com/lcr/eod/eod38.htm

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