I don’t think I had ever seen a true Lotus flower before coming to China…and when I did, I was spellbound by its beauty! Obviously, people throughout history have felt the same!
Much of this fascination comes from the fact that this stunningly beautiful flower grows out of muddy, murky water. We, as humans, like to compare ourselves, and our lives to these flowers; from them, we gain great encouragement for potential achievement in our lives, no matter where our “roots” are.
This is why the lotus is a sacred symbol in Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as in Egyptian and Greek Mythology. It symbolizes purity, spirituality, beauty and more. There are extensive specialized symbolic meanings of the lotus in these religions that I am not knowledgeable of and will not cover here.
There is often much confusion between the true lotus and the water lily. The Sacred Lotus, also known as the Indian Lotus, Nelumbo nucifera, is native to southern Asia and Australia. It is pink or white. There is one other true lotus, the American Lotus, Nelumbo lutea, native to North America. It is yellow or white. The flower called the Blue Lotus, native to Egypt, is actually a water lily. The easiest way to tell if a flower is a Lotus or water lily is to look at the center; A lotus has a seed pod, the water lily does not. The lotus has complete, circular leaves and the water lily leaves have a separation or cleft in the leaf. After confusion in the past, they are now classified in two different scientific families; Nelumbonaceae for the lotus family, and Nymphaeaceae for water lily family.
The lotus is an aquatic perennial plant and grows in shallow freshwater. It actually lives in mud (soil), water and air at same time! The rhizomes (underwater stems and roots) grow in the mud and the leaves and flowers shoot up above the water and lie on the surface. The flowers open with the sun in the morning, and close again when the sun sets. After the flower finishes blooming, the pod, which is the fruit, continues to grow. As it dries, it shrinks back, eventually droops, and allows the seeds to fall into the water. The plants don’t tolerate the cold, so depending on the area, their blooming time varies, but definitely not during winter.
In China, the lotus is used as an ornamental plant, as food, and in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Many things take on special meanings in China because the way they are pronounced sounds like a similar word in Chinese. Because of this, the lotus symbolizes “continuous harmony,” and the seeds symbolize the “continuous birth of children.” The love of the lotus throughout Chinese history has resulted in a large amount of literature, poetry, and paintings being very popular. It can also be found represented in jewelry and many other decorative forms.
The whole plant: flowers, flower stems, young leaves, seeds (also called nuts) and rhizomes, are all edible and quite popular in Asian cuisines. The rhizome, referred to as the lotus root, lian ou 莲藕, is the most popular.
The roots grow up to four feet long, with many segments joined together. Usually in markets you will find them single or with two or three segments joined. It can be stir-fried, used in soups, pickled, dried for a powder (often used as a drink), or used for desserts. I love the sweet lotus root stuffed with sticky rice, called “guì huā lián'ǒu” 桂花莲藕.
The seeds, liánzĭ 莲子, are also commonly used. They can be eaten raw by removing the outer casing and the bitter green sprout inside. A paste used for desserts is also made from the raw seeds. The seeds are often dried: These should be soaked in water before using, then they can be used in soups or desserts.
Even the petals can be eaten, or used as a garnish! Tea is made from the roots, leaves and stems. The leaves are also used for wrapping others foods, especially sticky rice, for cooking.
In TCM, the lotus has many uses: The sprouts are used for heart health and high blood pressure, other parts for intestinal healing, help with constipation and diarrhea, reducing mucus to help with colds and sinus problems, increasing energy and more!
Next time you are at the market, think about trying lotus in one form or another!
Lotus can be seen in many areas around Guangdong Province, especially in June and July. Honghu Park in Shenzhen has a Lotus Culture Festival in June. The lotus pond in the pictures is Lou Lim Ioc Garden in Macau, during July.