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The lotus flower

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Seeds, rhizomes, moisture, sunlight and muddy soil, humble components that evolved into a mythical symbol, a spectacular water lily, the renowned, coveted and treasured lotus flower. Eighty species of water lilies are grown, eaten and appreciated around the world, but none as spectacular as the Asian lotus, symbol of purity and loveliness.

People treasure the lotus not only for its spectacular blooms in shades of white (the rarest), of creamy yellow, read and pink, but also for its food value. Several parts of the lotus are edible and quite tasty. The plant’s habitats create a symbiotic relationship for a variety of fish and amphibians, providing food and shelter. Many other creatures -- insects, water mites, freshwater sponges and tiny microbes -- make their homes around water lilies, too. The slender stalks of the lotus act as deterrents for excess wave action, thereby helping to keep the water calm.

Water lilies are unusual in many ways. The long stalks rise from their root systems, actually underwater rhizomes that grow on the bottom of a muddy pond or lake, bursting through the water’s surface. Waxy-coated leaves float on the lake or pond surface, repel water and keep the upper surface of the plant dry. Most plants produce stomata on the undersides of their leaves to absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, both needed for the plant’s food production cycle. Lotus plants, by contrast, have their stomata on the upper sides of their leaves, exposed to the air.

But there is much more to the lotus. Chinese people make use of all parts of this plant – the roots, fruit, seeds (eaten cooked or raw) and the leaves. Traditional Chinese medicine considers the lotus root, having a slightly sweet taste, as “cool.” Its consumption is supposed to benefit liver function and is said to strengthen the heart, spleen and stomach. Uncooked lotus root juice clears “heat” and stops all internal bleeding; cooked lotus root can “promote blood,” treat women for anemia from heavy menstruation and at the same time clear and improve energy, according to the website The part of the plant most commonly used for medicinal purposes are its seeds, which ripen in October. Some of these seeds have been known to last for 500 years and can be used to start the growing cycle all over again. At banquets during dynastic times, the host would serve his guests lotus seeds to nibble while they sipped their costly tea. But lotus leaves are also used and serve as a “wrapper” for steamed foods.

Lotus was already cultivated in the many moats and ponds and small lakes all throughout the Forbidden City in the 8th century, where it enhanced the beauty of the imperial palaces. Ornamental lotus grows in lakes around Beijing to this day.

The lotus is quite significant in Buddhist tradition because Gautama Buddha, also known as Sakyamuni, is frequently pictured sitting on a lotus flower. Legend tells us that he thought of his fellow man as “lotus buds in a lake, springing from mud and striving to attain the surface in order to blossom.” The symbolic Sanskrit refrain, “Oh, the jewel in the lotus,” stems from that era in history. The lotus’s many seeds represent fertility. Those who eat these seeds are said to be blessed with many healthy children. One of the largest lotus farming areas is on a portion of a lake in Hankow, central China, where the plant is harvested for food, according to Emily Hahn, “The Cooking of China,” 1968, Time-Life Books, N.Y.

Why should one want to eat lotus root? Because it tastes delicious! According to the website : “Once you've seen slices of lotus root, there's no mistaking it for anything else. The large, sausage-shaped rhizome of an aquatic plant (commonly known as the water lily), lotus root is pierced with 10 air tunnels so that when cut crosswise, the white slices look something like large snowflakes--or strangely symmetrical rounds of Swiss cheese.

The starchy yet crisp flesh is slightly sweet; it may be sliced or grated to use in salads, stir-fried, or cooked in soups or stews. Thin, lacy slices make a unique garnish.” The best time to buy fresh lotus root is the months between July and February, wholehealthmd says, although canned lotus is available all year long. A cup of cooked lotus root has a mere 79 calories, only a trace of fat and is rich in vitamin C and dietary fiber. It has been said that thinly sliced, deep-fried lotus root is superior to french fries.

Not too many are fortunate to view an expanse of lotus blossoms in a lake or pond, but a single plant will grow, flourish and bloom in any suitable container, even on a balcony or a patio. Properly cultivated, nurtured and cared for, the single lotus will thrive, piercing the surface and enchanting all around with its noble beauty.

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