Following Daike Tian's cover story in WGI Online 3.4 and Warner Orozco et al's feature in WGI Online 4.2, we wanted to learn more about the AU Lotus Project, how it got its start and who and what drives it now. Here are the answers!

 Nelumbo 'Perry's Super Star'

Auburn Lotus Project:
Passionate Plant People
Unite with a Common Vision

by Dr. Ken Tilt, Warner Orozco-Obando, C.J. McGrath, and Bernice Fischman
Department of Horticulture, Auburn University
Auburn, Alabama USA 
Click images to enlarge

The Accidental Encounter and Beginning of Something Special

The Lotus Project at Auburn University began like many things in life, especially in the plant world, as a chance encounter with an unforgettable and quite beautiful flower. The adventure began in 1999 with an invitation to Wuhan Botanical Gardens by a former Auburn University graduate student, Dr. Hongwin Huang. Dr. Huang received his PhD in Horticulture, returned to China and became Director of the Wuhan Botanical Gardens, where he was in charge of collecting and preserving native plants prior to their loss of habitat due to the building of the Three Gorges Dam.  

Drs. Ken Tilt and Jeff Sibley with two graduate students were Dr. Huang’s guests at the gardens and toured a generous sample of the rich timeless culture China has to offer. Dr. Huang helped ease the guarded Chinese scientific barriers to facilitate and expand the exchange of information and plant materials. We poured through the incredible plant treasures at the Garden but were overwhelmed by two of China’s most loved plants, peonies and lotus. Huge expanses of colorful, fragrant peonies were in full bloom.

Author Zhang Xingyan and Dr. Ken Tilt,
Chinese Lotus Conference
Beijing China 2008
For American southerners in south China, which is on a latitude similar to Mobile, Alabama, this was truly an unusual but welcome site since peonies are not considered a southern plant. Additionally, we were in awe of what is a common sight to the Chinese people, huge vistas of lotus (Nelumbo nucifera Gaertn.) growing from the edge of a lake or wetland at your feet to beyond the horizon. Cultural, governmental and religious centers are laced with the image of lotus illustrating how much this plant is revered and intertwined in the Chinese culture well beyond landscape or horticultural uses. These views were life-changing visions and we took the seeds of these memories back to the US and allowed them to germinate and take root.   

Dr. Stephen Garton and Dr. Daike Tian Put AU in the Mud 

Auburn Lotus Germplasm Collection 
Opportunities are always around if you open your mind to them. Dr. Stephen Garton was at Alabama A&M University at the time and he is a breeder and scientist knowledgeable of lotus. We learned that he was moving and could not take his lotus collection with him. Our passion had escalated and we hungrily accepted all the rhizomes we could get from his collection. In turn, this fanned the flames of passion, love, and appreciation for this plant.  

Dr. Daike Tian, from Shanghai, China, fell into our laps and laboratories as a PhD student who not only came to help us to develop our peony project but also took on lotus research on the side. His tireless work ethic combined with his access to Chinese literature and nurseries escalated our program rapidly in the ornamental area.    
We became extremely excited over the potential of this plant, especially the uniqueness of the bowl lotus. Lotus cultural requirements perfectly match the soil conditions for the chronically economically depressed area of the black belt region in Alabama, which has a rapidly growing aquaculture industry. Daike worked on the cultural practices of soil, water depth, container size, fertility, cultivar evaluation, and post-harvest handling and storage to get us acquainted with the basics. We realized the potential of this plant and needed help to learn more and commercialize lotus for others to enjoy.   

Daike Tian

Warner Orozco-Obando Adds Latin Energy to the Vision
We actively recruited and waited for funding for Warner Orozco-Obando to come from the University of Georgia to enrich our new lotus project as a PhD student. Warner is from Costa Rica and brought his passion for plants and his unique background of agriculture (BS in vegetable production from UC Davis) and environmental science (MA in environmental law) to the program. We moved aside as Warner injected his infectious ideas and inquisitive drive to introduce and make lotus part of American culture.

Author Wang Qichao and Warner
Orozco-Obando, Lotus Exposition,
Beijing China 2008
Warner built on Daike’s contributions and bridged the gap between many other academic disciplines. He loved the challenge and opportunity to spread the collaborative program internationally. With Warner and our industry contacts, we successfully partnered with like-minded people to take ornamental lotus to a mass commercial scale. He proposed the use of lotus in constructed wetlands (CWs) to remove organic compounds (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides) as well as heavy metals. He also envisioned using the roots harvested from the CWs in the production of alternative fuels (e.g. ethanol). Warner made the link with aquaculture and offered lotus as a potential bio-filter to help remediate many of our environmental blunders and excesses.  

Laura, Bill and Steve Bancroft,
Ten Mile Creek Nursery

Making the Jump
from Academia
to the Real World

Oscar Warmerdam,
Moerings-USA >

Bill Bancroft, energetic former horticulture student from Auburn University, started Ten Mile Creek Nursery in Hartford, Alabama. Bill, along with his parents, Steve and Laura Bancroft, collaborated with Auburn University and Moerings-USA and Oscar Warmerdam in Virginia to produce the first greenhouse-forced lotus for the early spring retail market. This successful venture continues into the second season with increased numbers and optimism.

We have continued to make links with aquaculture producers in the black belt region to develop an aquaponics industry with lotus as the model crop. These programs made a huge leap in visibility and credibility due to Warner’s efforts.   

CJ McGrath Brings a Welcome Green Conscience to the Program

Our latest recruit to the lotus team is CJ McGrath, who has a passion for sustainable agriculture and the organic production of vegetables. Her program has added a large important segment that we could not address with our limited resources. She does for the organic vegetable program what Warner and Daike did for the ornamental program, with help from Dr. Guihong Bi from Mississippi State University.  

CJ McGrath and Grant Mitchell,
Tianmen Plaza, Beijing, China
CJ has developed links with other organic growers in California and the black belt region. She is looking at vermiculture as an organic substrate in a synergistic relationship with aquaculture and fish waste to offer a low cost production and marketing program for edible lotus. The development of this area will take several grants and much work to get lotus to the family dinner table, but we are hopeful.  

Bernice Fischman: Sharing as We Go

As members of the International Plant Propagators Society, whose motto is “To Seek and Share,” we learn the value and benefit of not hoarding but openly sharing all for a more rapid and fun development of plant treasures. The lotus team embraces this concept and shares promotional distributions of plants to botanical gardens around the country. We have made lotus a priority program among the Alabama Cooperative Extension System network of horticulture agents and Master Gardener programs.  



In the background throughout the process has been Bernice Fischman, who develops our web page (Fischman et al., 2009). The site chronicles our activities, successes and failures. She has an educational background in art and English, and a personality that miraculously and meticulously puts order to our frenzied efforts. She creates all the beautiful displays for our promotions of lotus, works with us in our publications, and has dedicated countless hours to the organization and development of the Nelumbo registration database.  

< Bernice Fischman

Good People Bring Incredible Experience and Resources to Support Our Efforts

We made a late entrance into membership with different organizations such us WGI and the International Water Garden Society (IWGS). These should always be the first stop for any plant enthusiast trying to learn a new crop. They present a large pool of knowledge with national and international contacts and led to our involvement as the International Registrar for the genus Nelumbo.

We began building on the efforts of others to create a definitive, dynamic list of existing cultivars from around the world. We will need everyone’s help to verify and add to our “official” list. IWGS has provided us with some needed funding for our research. In addition, it led to some unique and unlikely liaisons. Grant Mitchell, a long time IWGS member and an Aussie lotus guru, offered to guide Warner, CJ and Ken through the world of lotus in China. One of life’s great characters, Grant took us through the back roads of China to meet his long-time friends. His fluent Chinese, personality, and reputation as a lotus expert got us into private nurseries and dining rooms that few people get to enjoy. He lifted us a number of notches on the learning curve of this plant.

The lotus team now has an increasing level of input from a large national and international program. We have enjoyed finding others who share our interests and are eager to help make lotus a valued crop as it is in many areas of the world. Our next graduate student is scheduled to come from India where we hope to evaluate and possibly exploit the biofuel potential of lotus as well as link to the significant research activities in that country. Today, our faculty collaborations include scientists from horticulture, plant physiology, nursery management, post-harvest physiology, vegetable production, molecular biology, production horticulture, agriculture economics, fisheries, plant nutrition, pharmacology, water quality, soils and agronomy.

Horticulture student David
Trapper and his Nelumbo species
germination test


Horticulture student Braden
Dudderar and his lotus experiment

< Horticulture student David
Eckman harvesting lotus

N. nucifera (left) and N. lutea
nine day old seedlings

Aquaculture student Tommy
Purcell and lotus used to remove
nutrients from fish effluents

Lotus phytoremediation of
organic compounds study

We are actively trying to feed and expand our international relationships with India, Korea, China, Japan, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Australia, Russia, Costa Rica, South Africa and other willing countries to share and expand our common interests. If we can manage to effectively present our vision to the grant providers, we hope to develop the American interest, enthusiasm and eco-tourism activities we have experienced with lotus during our numerous subsequent visits to China and other countries. The Chinese have become valuable allies and certainly the knowledgeable mentors in our efforts.

We note that the Chinese and Japanese use lotus as a teaching module in elementary schools to teach history, language, ecology, math and science. We are working with a community college and have pending grants to develop similar programs for our high schools. Like all plant people, we want to share our joy of this wonderful plant that has been revered by other cultures for centuries. It is our turn to savor and enjoy the many diverse gifts this versatile plant has to offer. We hope we can sustain our own momentum and encourage others who want to see this plant become commonplace in the United States.  

For more information about the project:

Bancroft, L. 2009. Warner’s lotus selection for the South East. Ten Mile Creek Nursery.

Creamer, J. 2007. AU Lotus researchers test the waters for putting aquatic plant on the market. AG Illustrated. College of Agriculture. Auburn University. Auburn, Al. Page 13.

Fischman, B., K. Tilt, W. Orozco-Obando, and D. Tian. 2009. Auburn Lotus Research Project. Department of Horticulture, Auburn University. Alabama, USA.

Orozco-Obando, W. 2007. Lotus - A Literature Review. The Auburn Lotus Research Project. Dept. Horticulture, Auburn University. Alabama, USA.

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

Orozco-Obando, W., K. Tilt, D. Eckman, B. Dudderar, F. Dane, J. Sibley, F. Woods, W. Foshee, J. Chappell, D. Cline, F. Woods. 2007
b. Lotus, an alternative crop for the Southeast USA with potential for Ethanol production. First International Symposium of Bio-fuels. The U.S. Civilian Research & Development Foundation. Kiev, Ukraine.

Orozco-Obando, W; K. Tilt, B. Fischman and C.J. McGrath. 2008a. A secret treasure in our backyard: Edible Lotus. The whole world gets it, but the USA. The Water Garden Journal 23 (4): 14 – 18.

Orozco-Obando, W., K. Tilt, D. Eckman, B. Dudderar, F. Dane, J. Sibley, F. Woods, W. Foshee, J. Chappell, D. Cline, and F. Woods. 2008b. Determination of phyto-remediation potential of Sacred Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) and Native American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea) in Constructed Wetlands. Proc. 22nd Chinese Lotus Conference. Beijing, China. 6 pages (submitted).

Orozco-Obando, W; K. Tilt, and B. Fischman. 2009. Is Lotus an Ornamental or a Vegetable? Yes! WGI Online Journal 4.2, May 2009.

Tian, D., K. Tilt, F. Woods, J. Sibley, and F. Dane. 2005. Effects of soil level and fertilization on performance of container Lotus. Proceedings 52th Annual Research Conference. Southern Nursery Association. Atlanta, Georgia.

Tian, D., K. Tilt, F. Woods, J. Sibley, and F. Dane. 2006. Summary of development, introduction and marketing strategy to share Lotus in the Southeast United States. Proc. 13th Annual Conference Int. Plant Prop. Soc. Wakayama, Japan 13: 24-26.

Tian, D. 2008. Container production and post-harvest handling of lotus (Nelumbo) and Micropropagation of herbaceous peony (Paeonia). Ph. D. Dissertation. Auburn University. Department of Horticulture. 292 pp.

Tian, D., K. Tilt, F. Woods, J. R. Kessler and J. Sibley. 2008. Postharvest longevity and viability of cooler-stored Lotus propagules. J. Environ. Hort. 26 (2): 101 – 104.

Tian, D., K. Tilt, F. Woods, J. Sibley, and F. Dane. 2009. Response of Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera Gaertn.) to planting time and disbudding. HortScience 44(3): 4 pages. 

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