There are a number of different plants throughout the world that are referred to under the name of lotus (family Nelumbonaceae) but in Australia there are principally two varieties available. They are the American lotus (Nelumbo lutea) and the sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera).
The sacred lotus could be considered the more spectacular variety, with exquisite flowers ranging in colour from creamy white, pale pink and apricot through to rose pink and deep red. The waxy flowers and foliage repel water and can be found emerging from the muddy waters of lakes throughout the warmer areas of the world.
The lotus is one of the most sensuous and evocative of flowers. In many cultures throughout the world, it is surrounded by myths.
In Hindu mythology, Lakshmi, the lotus goddess and wife of Vishnu, is also the goddess of good fortune, love and beauty. According to legend, Lakshmi rose like Aphrodite from the froth of the ocean in radiant beauty with a lotus in her hand. Lotus-eyed, lotus-coloured and decked with lotus garlands, Lakshmi is a symbol of maternal benevolence, representing the womb, procreation, fertility, purity and spiritual strength. She is regarded as the universal mother, bestowing on her devotees plenty and contentment.
Lotus plants look similar to water lilies and can be treated in much the same way, that is, grown in the soil or in large pots, at the bottom of a water feature. They are easy to grow and are not troubled by many problems. Plants can sometimes be attacked by caterpillars or aphids, and they do resent root disturbance. They can be divided in autumn but are more likely to thrive after division in warmer zones.
There are two methods of planting or potting. The first involves spreading a layer of rich soil and cow manure across the bottom of the pond, topping it with sand and then planting the lotus. This method may dirty the water.
The second method is to plant the lotus in suitable sized containers which allow room for the roots to spread. Use a heavy soil – potting mixes are sawdust based and can cause the entire pot and plant to float. In the pot, add two handfuls of cow manure, heavy garden soil, a sprinkle of slow-release fertiliser and another 2cm (1in) of soil on top. Plant the lotus into this mixture and cover the top of the pot with pebbles to avoid dislodgement by fish. Lower the pot into the water.
Deep water cultivation is generally recommended where lotus can reach their full height of 2.5m (8ft) but this is practical only in warm subtropical climates. In cooler zones, shallow water heats up more quickly to provide warmth and flowering.
Lotuses grow best in areas such as Perth and Sydney up to northern Queensland and the Northern Territory. In cooler climates such as Victoria, it is better to grow the American lotus, which has a slightly smaller flower but is more cold tolerant.
Lotus root is used in Asian cooking and can be steamed, baked, braised or fried. It is an excellent source of vitamin C and also provides iron and dietary fibre. Lotus root can be purchased from Asian food stores, either frozen, tinned or dried. Dried lotus seeds can also be used for cooking. Lotus flowers and seed pods can be used in fresh and dried flower arrangements.