An ancient aquatic plant that other countries for centuries
have used for food, medicine and ornamental value could become
all that and more for Alabama as a result of a research project
Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station scientists at Auburn
University have launched.
The plant is the lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), and in collaboration
with scientists from China, Japan, Mississippi and Georgia, the
Auburn research team is evaluating more than 160 varieties from
around the world to determine their ornamental characteristics,
such as flower color, size and longevity, and, among the edible
cultivars, how appealing they might be to the American palate.
In addition, Nelumbo lutea (The American Lotus) is
a native species that can be found growing in 32 states (USDA,
2008). A neglected species with a great potential, it can be
found growing the extreme southeastern portion of Ontario, Canada,
But their study of the perennial water plant isnt stopping
there. They also intend to investigate the potential demand for
lotus products in Alabama and the southeastern US, analyze lotus
production costs and economic potential, and expand their current
extensive collection of lotus cultivars -- all in an effort to
make Alabama, and specifically the states Black Belt, the
nations center for lotus production.
Identification of aquaculture species that can be developed
for production in west Alabama in order to bolster the economy
of the states poorest regions is a priority under a state-funded
Black Belt aquaculture research initiative that the AAES (Alabama
Agricultural Experiment Stations) and the Alabama Cooperative
Extension System began last year.
We believe lotus is such a crop, because it could be
an ideal crop for the poorly drained soils of the Black Belt
and it likely can be produced inexpensively, either along with
catfish or alone as a new aquaculture crop on a part-time basis,
AU horticulture professor and lotus research team leader Ken
With its uniqueness to reach both the ornamental market
and the food market, lotus has the potential to become the Vidalia
onion of the Black Belt, he said. It is not so much
a new discovery as it is introducing and promoting in the US
what a few billion people around the world enjoy on a regular
basis. We want to show people here what they have been missing.
Native to southern Asia and sacred to Hindus and Buddhists,
lotus have large leaves between four and 18 inches (10 and 46
cm) or more in diameter, fragrant flowers that bloom from mid-June
through the early fall and distinctive seedpods which, when dried,
are often used in flower arrangements.
Depending on the cultivars, lotus can vary greatly in size,
from dainty one-gallon-(4.4 liter-)container varieties that stand
a mere six inches (15 cm) above the water to ones that tower
six feet (two meters) above the surface in the shallow areas
of ponds where they are planted. Cultures for centuries have
used the plant for medicinal purposes to treat a myriad of conditions
that include diarrhea, high blood pressure, insomnia and skin
ailments. Virtually all parts of lotus -- from the seeds to the
rhizomes, or underground stems -- are edible.
The AU lotus project took root six years ago, when Tilt and
fellow AU horticulture professor Jeff Sibley traveled to Hubei,
China, and visited Wuhan Botanical Gardens and its director,
AU alumnus Hongwen Huang. That 175-acre (71 hectare) garden,
home to nearly 4,000 species of plants, is Chinas chief
research center for lotus production.
The visit piqued the Auburn faculty members interest
in the plant, and they began collecting cultivars from China,
Japan, New Zealand and Australia to bring to Alabama to evaluate
for their growth potential here. Currently, the testing -- with
outstanding results -- is being done on the Auburn campus and
at the AAESs North Alabama Horticultural Research Center
in Cullman, but that will be expanded to the Black Belt Research
and Extension Center in Marion Junction before years end,
If lotus shows significant economic potential, the research
team will seek to have the US Department of Agriculture establish
the Black Belt as the nations lotus germplasm repository.
That means it would be the center for the collection, evaluation
and distribution of lotus cultivars from around the world.
We already have one of the largest collections of lotus
cultivars in the country, so it makes sense to have the lotus
gene bank in Alabama, Tilt said.
Working with Dr. Tilt, Bernice Fischman and PhD candidate
Warner Orozco-Obando on the lotus project are: AU alumnus Dr.
Daike Tian, AU horticulture Dr. Floyd Woods, Dr. Foshee, and
Dr. Sibley from Horticulture. From the experimental stations
at Mobile and Cullman: John Olive, Arnold Caylor. From the Department
of Fisheries and related Aquacultures: Dr. Jesse Chappell from
Aquaculture and David Cline, and from agricultural economics
Dr. Deacue Fields. There are also collaborating scientists from
the University of Georgia, Mississippi State University; The
Wuhan Aquatic Vegetable Research Institute, China, as well as
others researchers from China, Japan, Australia, Israel, Russia
Alabama's Black Belt
"The Black Belt is a region of the U.S. state of Alabama,
and part of the larger Black Belt Region of the southern United
States, which stretches from Texas to Maryland. The term originally
referred to the region underlain by a thin layer of rich, black
topsoil developed atop the chalk of the Selma Group, a geologic
unit dating to the Cretaceous Period. The soils have been developing
continuously at least since the Pliocene Epoch. Because the underlying
chalk is nearly impermeable to groundwater, the black soils tend
to dry out during the summer. The natural vegetation of the chalk
belt consisted mainly of oak-hickory forest interspersed with
shortgrass prairie, while the sandy ridges flanking the chalk
belt supported pine forest.
"For lack of a reliable source of water, the earliest
settlers avoided farming the black soil until the discovery that
deep artesian wells could be drilled to supply people, livestock,
and crops. Beginning in the 1830s, cotton plantations became
Alabama's greatest source of wealth.
"Although the infestation of the cotton crop by the boll
weevil destroyed much of this system around 1910, the effects
of a cotton economy remain evident. Descendents of freed slaves
remain on the land, and make up the largest proportion of the
population in most Black Belt counties. Thus, the term "Black
Belt" is understood today as a demographic characterization
as much as a geologic one.
"Today, Alabama's Black Belt includes some of the poorest
counties in the United States. Along with high rates of poverty,
the area is typified by declining populations, a primarily agricultural
landscape with low-density settlement, high unemployment, poor
access to education and medical care, substandard housing and
high rates of crime."