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The "Vidalia Onion" of the Black Belt?

Lotus: A New Crop for Alabama

 by Jamie Creamer
Photos by Warner Orozco-Obando
Click to enlarge


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, to Florida.

But their study of the perennial water plant isn’t 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 state’s Black Belt, the nation’s 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 state’s 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 Tilt said.

“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 China’s 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 AAES’s North Alabama Horticultural Research Center in Cullman, but that will be expanded to the Black Belt Research and Extension Center in Marion Junction before year’s end, Tilt said.

If lotus shows significant economic potential, the research team will seek to have the US Department of Agriculture establish the Black Belt as the nation’s 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 and Thailand.

Alabama's Black Belt
from Wikipedia

"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."

Warner Orozco-Obando
harvesting seeds

“We’re very optimistic that lotus will soon be gracing Alabamians’ gardens and dinner tables and that Black Belt farmers will be reaping the rewards,” Tilt said. 

Other Articles about the Auburn Lotus Project
The Versatile and Valuable Lotus Vol. 3.4
Experiments with Lotus Propagation Vol. 3.4
Container Production and Post-harvest Handling of Lotus (Nelumbo). Abstract Vol. 3.4
Is Lotus an Ornamental Plant or a Vegetable? Yes! Vol. 4.2
Auburn Lotus Project: Passionate Plant People Unite Vol. 4.3
The Great Lotus Experiment (forcing blooms for a spring market) Vol. 4.3

Want to make a trip to China with Warner and other lotus lovers?
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