Warner Orozco-Obando >

Is Lotus an
Ornamental Plant
or a Vegetable?

Seed producing cultivar
Nelumbo '04-R-7'

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 registry.

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 creations.  

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 characteristics.

Flower producing
Nelumbo cultivar

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 individual tasks. 

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 for debate?    

Cultivars: Sex Makes the Difference in What They Do

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
Chinese market

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 plants.

Amazing Thai lotus
N. 'Sattabongkot' 
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 orozcow@gmail.com


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Orozco-Obando, W. Ph.D. student. Auburn Lotus Research Project. Department of Horticulture. Auburn University. Auburn, AL

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Orozco-Obando, W., K. Tilt, D. Tian, J. Sibley, F. Woods, W. Foshee, J. Chappell, D. Cline, D. Fields, and J. Olive. 2007. Lotus, an alternative multipurpose crop for the Southeastern USA. International Waterlily & Water Gardening Society Symposium. Bangkok, Thailand. Page 97.

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