Every Fourth of July, the talented pyrotechnicians who create the firework display that decorates the sky over Lake Union in Seattle devise new fireworks and the year I was working on this article, I was pleased to see fireworks that looked like lotuses, with outer petals fading from white to pink and central rings of rose deepening to red. The lotus, after all, is the flower for July in China. And the water lily, the flower of July in England, blooms in water. What could be more cool and refreshing during the hot days of July than contemplating the water lily?
From the earliest Indian collection of Buddhist sutras, from the reign of Ahyu, comes this description of the beginning of the world:
“Between the mountains there were many rivers, flowing in all directions along 100 different routes, moving slowly downhill, without waves. The rivers were shallow and their banks weren’t steep, making them easy to ford. The water in them was clean and pure, and flowers floated on the surface in abundance. The currents were full of them…”
According to this passage, the lotus was the first flower appearing in a world of water.
Natural Facts about the Lotus & the Water Lily
Although there is a botanical distinction, the lotus and water lily are often used interchangeably in folklore and mythology. Generally lotus refers to the water lily of India or the plant depicted in sacred art and stories, while the water lily is more often used by naturalists. As an example of the confusion, the World Book actually has two entries, one for the lotus, one for the water lily, both clearly referring to the same plant and neither referring to the other entry.
The lotus of India belongs to the Nelumbo genus (Nelumbo is the Sinhalese name for the plant). It has large flowers and leaves that sometimes grow up above the water. The plant’s thorny stalk discourages fish from nibbling on it. The upper cupule or fleshy capsule of the lotus dries out at maturity and separates from the plant. Floating about, it scatters seed from the many perforated holes in its surface.
In Asia, there is only one species of lotus with red and white blooms. Yet early Buddhist scriptures, referring to the seven precious lotuses, mention blue and yellow flowers. The water lily, native to Egypt, has blue flowers but the yellow-flowered water lily is native to North America. This mystery may be addressed in this Buddhist sutra:
“The lotuses of heaven can change according to people’s wishes, flowering when needed. In this way they bring joy to the hearts of all. There is no need to declare one false and the other real. Both are called the wondrous lotus flower.”
The water lily belongs to the Nympha genus, derived from the same word as Nymph. The Greek word nymph, besides being used to describe the feminine spirits of water and trees, also means something young and budding (like the larva of certain insects) and is the name for the labia minora. In Europe, the common white water lily, the one painted by Monet, is Nympha alba while in North America, we’re more familiar with Nuphar lutea, the yellow water lilies, also called spatterdocks or cow lilies. The English sometimes call the plant “brandy bottle” because the flowers smell like stale wine which attracts flies, the pollinators for the plant.
According to Chelsie Vandaveer, the Amazon Water Lily (victoria amazonica) imprisons its pollinators. The pure white flowers open in the evening and release a fragrance like pineapples. Beetles attracted by the smell find their way to the pale flowers on the dark water and feast on the central petals, while the flower closes over them. Then the anthers ripen and shed their pollen all over the trapped beetles. By the second evening, the flowers have turned pink and lost their fragrance. They open again and release the pollen-covered beetles which fly off in search of more white flowers with that incredible fragrance. Thus the lily is never self-pollinated since it can only be pollinated when the flower is white and fragrant. I love this description of the flower that changes colors and fragrances overnight, all in the service of sex. No wonder it’s considered a magical plant.
The Sunset New Western Garden Book does distinguish between lotuses and water lilies.
Water lilies, listed under the genus Nymphaea, have round leaves with a notch at one side where the leaf stalk is attached. The flowers float on the surface of the water or stand above it. Water lilies sold in nurseries are hybrids. Hardy water lilies come in colors ranging from white through yellow to red. Tropical water lilies come in more colors, including blue and purple, but are more sensitive and prefer (no surprise!) to live in areas where orange trees flourish. They can be grown in colder climates, especially if the roots are stored in damp sand over the winter.
Lotuses, in the genus Nelumbo, have perfectly round leaves that spring up in summer above the water level and large fragrant flowers on separate stalks. Lotus roots should be planted in spring in 12 to 18 inches of fairly rich soil, which is then covered with 8 to 12 inches of water. They often will not bloom the first year, unless the summer is warm early. If the water will freeze in your area, the pond should be covered or filled with more water in winter. Nelumbium luteum is the American lotus, with pale, small flowers. The Indian or Chinese lotus, Nelumbium nelumbo, usually has pink flowers although white, rose and double varieties are available.
To make things even more confusing there is a genus called Lotus but it’s a completely different plant, a member of the pea family. Let’s not even go there.
Engraving of a lotus from an old herbal.
When the white lotus descends to this world, it changes everyone’s life for the better. Chant from the White Lotus Sect, Ming dynasty
Jonas Balys, a Lithuanian folklorist writing on the lotus for Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia of Folklore and Mythology provides a great summary of the significance of the lotus through the ages.
The oldest representation of the lotus was made centuries before anyone ever wrote about it: a statue unearthed at Mohenjo-Daro showing a wide-hipped goddess, lifting her breasts with her hands and wearing lotus blossoms in her hair.
The Hindu goddess Laxmi, is also called Padma, Kamia and Kamalasana, all names for the lotus. She emerged from a lotus which sprang from Vishnu’s forehead (an improvement on Athena’s method of birth, I think). Vishnu himself is pictured holding a conch, a wheel, a mace and a lotus in his four hands.
The earliest written reference to the goddess in a supplement of the Rig-Veda describes her as born of the lotus, standing on the lotus, garlanded with lotuses. She is the hue of the lotus, lotus-eyed, lotus-thighed. She is often depicted flanked by white elephants who pour water from their trunks over her and the lotus she holds. Supposedly elephants love to eat the steam of lotuses.
In India, the Lotus also represents birth. Vishnu puts forth from his body a single giant navel on which Brahma, the lotus-born Creator is seated. This lotus has 1,000 golden petals from which mountains rise and waters flow.
Buddhism borrowed the lotus pedestal from Brahma. The Buddha is often depicted sitting on a lotus or holding a lotus. Yoga students and meditators sit in lotus position.
Legend says that when the Buddha was born, he walked seven steps in ten directions and with each step a lotus flower appeared. Look closely at the soles of his feet when you see a statue of Buddha — you may see the imprint of the lotus.
Buddhist periods are initiated by the appearance of a lotus, which indicates the location of the sacred tree of the Buddha. If there are no blossoms, no Buddha will appear. At the beginning of the current era, the Bhadrakalpa, there were 1,000 blossoms, signifying the birth of 1,000 Buddhas.
The Buddhist sutras say that the lotus has four virtues: scent, purity, softness and loveliness. Yet as Chang Chin-ju notes, many other flowers are soft, clean and fragrant. The lotus was singled out because Chinese botanists once believed that it flowered and bore fruit at the same time, thus symbolizing the ability to transcend the limitations of time.
In China, even before Buddhism arrived bringing its special devotion to the lotus, the lotus was honored as the plant of summer. One of the eight immortals holds a lotus, the “flower of open-heartedness” or a lotus-pod wand. It was an emblem of purity, fruitfulness (because of its many seeds) and creative power.
The Lotus Sect of Chinese Buddhism believes that people can be rewarded for virtuous acts by leaving the cycle of reincarnation and going to dwell in the Western Heaven. This paradise contains the Seven Treasure Pond which brims over with the Water of Eight Deeds and Virtues. The bottom of the lake is covered with gold dust and the lotuses are as big as carriage wheels. The blue flowers give off a blue light, the red a red light, the yellow a yellow light and the white flowers a marvelous fragrance. The different colors have different meanings. White represents purity, blue goodness and red enlightenment.
The Sacred Lake of Lotuses is often depicted in Temple Courtyards. Each soul has a lotus on this lake which will open to receive them after death and where they will wait until the time of its opening. The flowers thrive or droop according to the piety of the individual on earth; for the devout they open immediately when he dies, admitting the soul at once to the divine presence.
In China, the envelopes given to the family at a funeral are impressed with the outline of a lotus. And in rural areas, people still burn incense to the Spirit of the Lotus. In Chinese Buddhism, the goddess Tara is also called Lotus. And Kwan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, is often depicted holding a lotus which she gazes at with downcast eyes, or reclining on an expanse of lotuses.
In Chinese Buddhism, the lotus became a symbol of purity. “Bathing in the clear water of the spiritual pond, the lotus’ roots dig deep into the soil.” It represented being able to distance oneself from vulgarity. But Mahayana Buddhism takes this symbolism a step further: “This flower doesn’t grow in the highlands, but rather it blooms in the vile swamps.” In other words, purity is no different than pollution—the spirit can bloom in any circumstance.
The lotus became a popular symbol in Chinese folk custom. Pictures showing fat dancing babies holding lotus leaves or flowers are purchased in the hope that people will give birth to several boys in succession (because the Chinese word for lotus sounds the same as a word meaning “one after another”). And since lotus leaves protect the goldfish under them, the lotus also symbolizes abundance year after year.
Long before the classical Hindu scriptures wrote of the lotus, the lotus was an important symbol in Egypt. In fact, the lotus may have come to India from Egypt. It was associated with the sun because it opens in the morning and closes at night. Horus, the sun-god was often depicted sitting on a lotus (like Buddha and Brahma). The lotus was also the flower of resurrection, used in funeral rites and depicted on tombs. Mourners would pray that the deceased would have the chance to bloom again, “like a water lily reopening.”
The water lily appears all over the tomb of King Tutan-kamen which was built in 1361 BC. Water lilies adorn the tops of columns. The oar King Tut is using to row to the land of rebirth is made in the image of a half-open water lily. A beautiful woman who resembles Cleopatra offers the water lily she holds in her hand to another woman to sniff.
A Dakota legend tells about the origin of the yellow pond lily common in North America. A Star Maiden came down from the night sky and wanted to live with the Dakota. The chief, Red Strawberry Man, sent his son with the maiden to consult the tribe’s advisor who lived across the lake. While rowing across the lake in the darkness, the son’s canoe hit a log and the Star Maiden tumbled into the waters. In the morning, the first yellow water lily appeared at the same spot.
The sixth moon of the Chinese lunar calendar is called the Lotus moon. In Peking, the birthday of the lotus is celebrated on the 24th day of the sixth month, according to Burkhardt. People flock to see the pink lotuses blooming in the lakes around the Winter Palace with the same enthusiasm the Japanese bring to cherry-blossom viewing. The sight of the lotus blooming in ponds and moats signifies that prayers to the Dragon-Prince have been answered and there will be sufficient moisture for an abundant harvest.
On two Chinese lunar holidays that usually fall in the month of July, the Chinese celebrate with lotus flowers. During the festival of Tanabata, the weaver woman, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, children carry lotus flowers. And lotus lanterns are lit for the Ghost Festival on the first day of the seventh lunar month.
Thoreau wrote an entry on June 25, 1852, that implies it was the custom for young men to bring water lilies to church on Sundays while they were in bloom:
“The nymphaea odorate, water nymph, sweet water-lily, pond-lily, in bloom. A superb flower, our lotus queen of the waters. Now is the solstice in still waters. How sweet, innocent, wholesome its fragrance. How pure its white petals, though its root is in the mud! It must answer in my mind for what the Orientals say of the lotus flower. Probably the first a day or two since. To-morrow, then will be the first Sabbath, when the young men, having bathed, will walk slowly and soberly to church in their best clothes, each with a lily in his hand or bosom, with as long a stem as he could get. At least I used to see them go by and come into church smelling a pond-lily, when I used to go myself. So that the flower is to some extent associated with bathing on Sabbath mornings and going to church, its odor contrasting and atoning for that of the sermon.”
As days are still long;
Early mornings are cool
While autumn is still young.
Dew on the lotus
Scatters pure perfume;
Wind on the bamboos
Gives off a gentle tinkling.
I am idle and lonely,
Lying down all day,
Sick and decayed;
No one asks for me;
Thin dusk before my gates,
Cassia blossoms inch deep.
Po Chu-I (772-864) Autumn Coolness, translated by Howard S Levy and Henry Wells
Jian Nan Shi Gao, a Song dynasty poet, was 78 years old when he had the following dream: He met an ancient man who told him: “I am the lotus scholar and responsible for the mirror lake. But now I am leaving, and I was wondering if you could take my place minding the moonlight, wind and dew and protecting the lotuses? Every month you will receive 1000 jugs of wine in payment.”
Lotus & Palm border from the Palace of Darius 1 at Susa. Pesian, 6th century BCE in the Musee du Louvre.
Indian folklore prescribes the leaves of the lotus to cool the fires of ardor. Pliny says the same thing: “According to tradition nymphaecea was born of a nymph who died of jealousy about Hercules, and therefore those who have taken it in drink for twelve days are incapable of intercourse and procreation.”
Huron Smith (quoted by Coffey) noted in 1933 the medicinal use of the yellow pond lily (nelumbo lutea) among the Forest Potawatomi who call it pine snake, because of the way the roots look when exposed. The roots were cut in quarters to dry, then pounded into a pulp to be used as a poultice for inflammatory diseases.
Michael Moore, the noted North American herbalist, prescribes it for exactly the same thing that medieval herbalists did: cooling of too much heat (appropriate during the heat of the Dog Days!) Moore recommends using the dried seeds and tea made from the root for soothing inflammation of the intestinal and urinary tract, caused by “too much sex, three days driving in a subcompact in the summer—or the jalapeno syndrome.” The fresh root is especially good for soothing the reproductive organs, whether used internally or externally. Moore cautions that the root is for cooling and shrinking hot, inflamed and sharply painful conditions, not for dull, congested, subacute and achy conditions that need stimulation. The root can also be used as a poultice or bath for inflamed joints.
Warning: Although I’m convinced by the reports of reputable herbalists and the ancient folk tradition that ingesting lotus root is safe, Jeanne Rose in her herbal marks the water lily with her symbol for highly toxic. And David L Spess, in his book on Soma, posits that plants from both the Nymphaea and Nelumbo families were the source of the divine hallucinogen, known in the India tradition as soma. He says that both plants are psychoactive, as well as having rejuvenating and healing powers.
Assyrian carved stone panel of a lotus blossom from the 6th century BCE
Every part of the lotus found in India (Nelumbo nucifera) is edible. Seeds are roasted to make puffs called mahkanas. The plant’s roots are ground up to make lotus meal.
Native Americans also used the ground flour of a similar plant, Nelumbo lutea. Thomas Nuttal (quoted by Coffey) made notes in 1821 of the way the Quapaws of Arkansas used the plant. The young leaves were cooked, the tubers baked, the young seeds eaten raw or cooked and the ripe seeds of winter roasted, boiled or ground into meal. Furthermore they extracted an edible oil from the seeds.
You can eat the seeds of yellow pond lily. Moore offers a recipe from an Alaskan herbalist, Janice Schofield, for Pond Lily Popcorn, made by popping 1/4 cup of seeds in 2 tablespoons of oil and flavoring them with butter, nutritional yeast and whatever else you fancy. He comments that it sounds more palatable than the way the Assiniboin and Micmac ate them: fried in bear fat.
Lotus border painted on cornice moulding on the Portico of Thersilion at Megalopolis
How to enjoy the water lily in the month of July
- Rent or borrow a canoe or kayak and go out on the water near some water lilies
- Chant Om mani padme hum (a lotus wishing-spell)
- Sit in lotus position
- Create a pond (perhaps using a barrel—but don’t use redwood — it discolors the water) and plant some lotuses
- Burn incense to the spirit of the lotus
- Make an offering to the Buddha or Laxmi of a water lily floating in water
Burkhardt, V.R., Chinese Creeds and Customs, Hong Kong: South China Morning Post, 1982
Chang Chin-ju, translated by Jonathan Barnard, “Lotus, Flower of Paradise”
Coffey, Timothy, The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers, Houghton Mifflin 1993
Jenks, Kathleen has a wonderful section on the lotus sutras, plus beautiful lotus paintings at her fabulous website, Mything Links
Kear, Katerine, Flower Wisdom, Thorsons 2000
Moore, Michael, Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, Santa Fe: Red Crane Books 1993
Sunset New Western Garden Book, Menlo Park: Lane Publishing Company 1979
Rose, Jeanne, Herbs & Things, Grosset & Dunlap 1972
Spess, David L., Soma: The Divine Hallucinogen, Inner Traditions 2000
Vandaveer, Chelsie, “Why does the Amazon Water Lily imprison its pollinators?”
Ward, Bobby J, A Contemplation Upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth and Literature, Timber Press 1999
Wells, Diana, 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names, Algonquin Books of Cahpel Hill 1997