Warner Orozco-Obando >
Is Lotus an
or a Vegetable?
Seed producing cultivar
by Warner Orozco-Obando, Ken Tilt,
and Bernice Fischman
Auburn Lotus Research Project
Department of Horticulture, Auburn University, Alabama USA
Click images to enlarge
Lotus (Nelumbo) has a long and very important history
in the world for its many uses as a food source, for its ornamental
beauty, and often for its medicinal qualities. It has gone beyond
its functional value and achieved star status as a cultural and
religious icon. Its primary uses are as a food source (vegetables)
and as an ornamental container and landscape plant. Are vegetable
lotus selections not ornamental and ornamental selections not
edible? Answering these questions will require more research
to better understand the differences between selected cultivars
and varieties. Commercial gardeners and plant enthusiasts need
to be able to easily access this relevant information in an organized
way. The Auburn Lotus Research Project, in association with the
International Waterlily and Water Gardening Society and other
organizations, is trying to serve these needs as the recognized
authority for the genus Nelumbo (lotus). Currently this
institution is helping to continue the development of the genus
Where you find it makes a difference.
To understand lotus requires that you look into its family
history and where it lives. In technical terms, it is important
to consider its taxonomy and geographical distribution. Plants
are classified with long threads of distant relatives but the
close family units are separated by families and species with
each species split into very close relatives of genera and specific
epithets. Traditional taxonomists put lotus into a large family
of Nymphaeaceae (waterlily). The newest accepted thought
puts lotus into its own smaller family of Nelumbonaceae
with a very small species clan represented by Nelumbo
as the genus (Guo et al, 2007) and only lutea and nucifera
as the specific epithets.
N. lutea from
Eufala, Alabama USA
The North American relative is represented by Nelumbo lutea
(Synonym Nelumbo pentapetala or Nelumbium luteum)
and it is known as American lotus, water-chinquapin, and yellow
lotus (Sayre, 1963). It is native to the eastern and central
portions of the USA ranging from Maine to Wisconsin in the north,
and in the south from Florida to Texas. It is also possible to
find native stands in northeastern Mexico (Hernandez et al, 1991).
Small native populations can be found in the West Indian Archipelago
and the extreme southeastern portion of Ontario, Canada. Although
it has been reported in northern South America (Qichao and Xingyan,
2005 and Xiuwen et al, 1997) there does not appear to be any
information that confirms this hypothesis.
N. lutea has the same long history as its cousin, the
Asian lotus, but has received little attention over the centuries
and actually has been shamefully neglected and left to develop
on its own with few to enjoy and select the jewels of nature's
N. lutea's relative, Nelumbo nucifera Gaertn (Synonym
Nelumbium speciosum Willd), has a long and distinguished
history so it has gathered many names over the centuries. It
is most often called sacred lotus, Indian lotus, or Asian lotus
but other names include: East Indian lotus; Egyptian lotus; lian
or lin ngau (Chinese); and hasu or renkon [Japanese] (Yamaguchi,
1990). This species is distributed in Asia and Oceania, from
Japan in the east, to the Caspian Sea in the western part of
Asia, and from the northern part of Australia in the south, to
Russia in the North (Xiuwen et al, 1997).
Lotus is a sacred flower
Practical Classification Systems or Features
Most lutea plants are considered wild species and their
crosses with nucifera are classified as ornamentals and maintained
as clones. Varieties within the plant world are often defined
as the siblings of the parent plants being consistently identical
in physical appearance to the same parent plants but are not
clones. A clone of a single parent plant is called a cultivar
and is genetically identical to the parent. Asian lotus (N.
nucifera and its cultivars) had been classified in different
ways based on four physical characteristics: plant height, flower
diameter, flower color, and flower form. Since its corolla (collective
name for petals of the flower) is made up of many petals varying
enormously in size, shape, number, and color (from cultivar to
cultivar), Asian Lotus has also been classified by flower shapes:
plate, bowl, cup, dancing, and overlapped ball (Qichao and Xingyan,
2005). Some varieties and cultivars show one or more functional
They are classified according to their strongest usage feature
(Nguyen, 2001): seed production, ornamental flower production,
and edible or rhizome production (example at right). All lotus
are edible and have flowers and seed but, over the centuries,
cultivars have been selected based on how well they do these
Roberth Cheng holding
an edible lotus rhizome N. 'Hubei # 5'
The considerable variation in flower color and shape has made
lotus one of the most popular ornamental and cultivated flowers
in Asia (Masuda et al, 2006). There are more than 1500 cultivars
in the world (Tian, 2008). In China there are between 400 and
600 cultivars (Qichao & Xingyan, 2005); India has more than
35 indigenous races (Goel et al, 2001); and Japan reports over
625 ornamental cultivars (Tian, 2008). In Alabama, researchers
from the Department of Horticulture at Auburn University are
evaluating over 160 cultivars of this plant (Orozco-Obando et
al, 2007) and have introduced one of their own, 'Hot Lips' by
Dr. Daike Tian.
Researchers from the Department of Horticulture
at Auburn University are evaluating over 160 cultivars.
Researchers at Auburn University categorize cultivars using two
systems: size (plant height) and use. Four size categories were
defined according to height above the water surface: LARGE -
more than 37" (94cm); MEDIUM - 13-36" (33-91cm); SMALL
- 7-12" (18-30cm); and MINIATURE (or teacup) - less than
6" (15cm). Use is designated as ornamental, rhizome producer,
and seed producer (Tilt, 2009, personal communication). These
categories are arbitrary but necessary to offer broad distinction
for classification and easy recognition by those who study or
use lotus. It is a dynamic pigeon-holing process with a functional
classification of medicinal lotus possibly to be added in the
future. There are gray areas at the category margins which will
always offer opportunity for "academic discourse".
What would plant nuts do without some good taxonomic plant fodder
Cultivars: Sex Makes the Difference in What
It is hard to be all things to all people. In nature, survival
of the species is the number one priority for all living things.
As with people, some plants are better at procreation than others.
When it is time for sex in plants (and probably people) all energy
is diverted to this process and other parts of the plant are
often neglected. Plants with few flowers and seeds send more
of the energy (carbohydrates) to the roots and rhizomes for storage
for next year's growth creating a great vegetable. Those plants
that have their attention directed to sex and producing flowers
and seeds send fewer resources to the roots and rhizomes. The
result is a lower quality vegetable rhizome but the ornamental
show is spectacular and the seed and seed pods offer an ornamental
and tasty side effect serving the best features of both worlds.
Flower production often determines classification category. In
China, 'Oulian' has been specifically selected for its production
of high quality rhizomes - edible qualities (Follett and Douglas,
2003). In Australia, the germplasm inventory for UWSH and Gosford
HRAS reported the following cultivars as rhizome producers: 'Paradise',
'Quangdong', 'Green Jade', 'Damaojie', 'Zhouou', 'Paozi', 'Big
Lying Dragon' and 'Bitchu'. In Alabama, USA, Auburn University's
germplasm collection works with the Chinese cultivars: 'Hubei
# 5 ', 'E#2', 'E#3', 'E#4'; a Japanese cultivar 'Shin-Koga Hash'
as their edible rhizome producers.
Research student Braden
Dudderar holding a rhizome
of the edible cultivar N. 'E#2'
Seed producing cultivar
N. 'Space Lotus 36'
Varieties that are used to produce seeds have no appreciable
rhizome (Nguyen and Hicks, 2004) and they are mainly harvested
in the fall (Jiang and Cao, 2008). 'Zilian' is a Chinese cultivar
grown for seed production (Follett and Douglas, 2003). At Auburn,
some of their best seed producing cultivars are: 'Space Lotus
# 36', 'Karizma'; '04-R-7' (top of page); and 'O4-R-31'.
Lotus Uses and Development by Different Cultures
There was a time when Native Americans appreciated the value
of Nelumbo lutea. Several organs of Nelumbo lutea
are edible and were once part of the diet of Native American
tribes. The starchy tuberous roots were soaked in water to remove
bitterness and then baked like sweet potatoes. Flavor and texture
were described as sweet and mealy. Unrolling young leaves were
prepared like spinach (Peterson, 1978). Hard seeds were gathered
and eaten like nuts, added as a thickening to soups, or roasted
like chestnuts (Sayre, 1963) and dried and ground into flour
for making bread. Seeds contain up to 19% protein and edible
oil can be extracted from them. Flowers of the American lotus
are beautiful and often fragrant. The seed pods are quite striking
and are in high demand commercially for flower arrangements.
Reports that deal with the uses of Yellow Chinquapin (N. lutea)
as a source of food/medicine do not specify particular varieties/cultivars
so the assumption is that those are wild plants or little selection
has been done among this species for superior clones. Unlike
with Nelumbo nucifera, little research has been done to
determine the genetic diversity and potential for breeding within
this species. This great diversity among the species allows for
a better opportunity to target specific flower characteristics,
seed and rhizome quality, disease resistance, size and other
desirable genetic traits.
Nelumbo nucifera is used by many cultures in many places
including Asia and Australia, Russia, and others (Orozco-Obando
et al, 2008 a). Cultivated for its edible rhizomes in China,
Japan, Hawaii, India, and Korea (Hanelt, 2001), it is considered
as an alternative vegetable for the export market in Mexico (Rogers
and Redding, 2003) and Australia (Nguyen, 2001).
< Edible lotus harvest in Wuhan, China
N. nucifera's edible roots are swollen rhizomes
and are harvested from autumn to spring (Jiang and Cao, 2008).
The starchy rhizomes are eaten raw, roasted, as pickles, and
as dried slices, fried as chips, or used for starch production.
The leaves are used to wrap food from the market. They are also
used as vegetable and sometimes mixed in the flour to make delicious
lotus bread. The acorn-like seeds are considered an oriental
delicacy and are eaten raw, roasted, boiled, pickled, candied,
ground as meal, and roasted to make puffed "Makhanas,"
a popcorn-like snack (Billing and Biles, 2007). In some places,
the whole plant is used. For instance, in Cambodia, the lotus
flowers and stem are collected for food. Seeds are eaten as a
snack and the stems and roots are made into soups and other dishes
(Evans et al, 2004). Flowers are used in the production of perfume
(Hanelt, 2001). In Thailand, red and white wines are made with
red and white lotus flowers, respectively (Orozco-Obando, personal
observation). In India, honey made by bees visiting lotus flowers
is used as a tonic, known as 'Padmammadjhu' or 'Makaranda' and
used for eye disorders (Kew, 2006). There are more than 100 kinds
of processed products made with lotus (Jiang and Cao, 2008) and
in some countries its use as an industrial crop has been explored.
Edible lotus rhizomes for sale in a
Edible lotus root sliced raw
and sprinkled with sugar
Lotus leaves are mixed with flour
to make a delicious lotus bread
Peeled and ready to eat
fresh raw lotus seeds
Warner Orozco with a fresh lotus seed vendor
in Beijing, China
An observational comment often quoted in the literature is that
wherever you see lotus growing it is a sign of clean water. That
could mean lotus only grows in clean water or that lotus is part
of nature's janitorial service.
Auburn Aquaculture Research Station -
Tommy Purcel next to experimental
wetlands used to grow lotus and
remove pollutants from fish effluents
Current research at Auburn and other universities supports the
value of lotus as an environmental water filter. For instance,
in the USA, this plant is currently being evaluated for use in
the decontamination of water effluents from intense aquaculture
systems. In addition, it is being tested as a potential phyto-accumulator
of organic compounds when used in constructed wetlands (Orozco-Obando
et al, 2008 b). In a world stressing the environmental priority
needs of "green" and "sustainability", the
image and value of lotus rises to a level of potential star status.
Development of an International Registrar
and Checklist for Lotus (Nelumbo) Cultivars
Reading the above information on the development of varieties
and cultivars of lotus quickly illuminates a need for an organization
to store and maintain all the plant introductions from around
the world. Are all the introductions distinct and different in
their appearance or other traits? As with many other plants,
there needs to be an "official" registration process
to offer a central database for use by researchers, hobbyists,
and commercial users of plants within the genus Nelumbo.
It is also nice to offer due credit to the creative work of the
lotus breeders and enthusiasts that develop or recognize and
introduce superior plants.
Recently, the Auburn Lotus Research Project was nominated
by IWGS to develop the International Lotus Registry, a tool that
will benefit buyers, merchants, breeders, and scientists. Registration
is the process of submitting a cultivar name, description (eg.
bud size and flower size), and other pertinent information for
consideration by the registrar.
The registrar is appointed by ICRA, The International Cultivar
Registration Authority, for the genus Nelumbo that has
been appointed by a commission of ISHS, the International Society
of Horticultural Sciences. The registrar and checklist will include
the traceable breeding history of each cultivar, where possible.
A cross reference of synonyms and translations of the cultivar
names will be added.
^ Measuring bud size | Flower size v
The development of this registry is very labor-intensive as information
needs to be found, selected, interpreted, recorded, organized,
and verified. It also involves drawing some lines of distinction
in sizes and shapes that nature does not recognize or adhere
to. It is our need for ranking, naming, defining, grading and
compartmentalizing that injects overlays of order and confusion
into nature's continuum. Three Ph.D. graduate students and a
technician are working on data collection and compilation and
photographing the Auburn cultivar collection. Information from
China, Japan, Thailand, the United States, and other sources
is being used. Registration will be done by transmissions on
line as well as hard copies. The online database will include
a page for each cultivar with information and photos for the
novice lotus enthusiast and a link to the official registration
page. Registrants will be asked to submit a standardized digital
portfolio of photos of critical plant structures. The ultimate
goal of the project is a meaningful database. Registrants can
view cultivars to compare with their cultivars or potential releases
to determine if they are a distinct new introduction. The Auburn
collection now numbers over 160 cultivars and the goal of the
Registry is to have more than 1,000 cultivars from around the
world. Contacts with India, Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Russia
and other countries have been made to solicit information and
Amazing Thai lotus
This is an enormous project the goal of which is to invigorate
and legitimize the hard work of breeders and plant enthusiasts
for this remarkable genus Nelumbo. Researchers at Auburn
University understand that they will have to wade through centuries
of observations but what a beautiful and exciting pile of confusion
they will have to sort through! They welcome your comments and
thoughtful constructive suggestions during the development of
this database. Write firstname.lastname@example.org
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