The beautiful lotus flower grows in waterways and bodies of water such as rivers, ponds and lakes and has been used for medicine, consumption, cultural representation and symbolism for millennia. It comes in a variety of colours, although it is most commonly found in white, pink and yellow or yellow-white.
A kind of aquatic perennial (meaning that it grows back year after year), the lotus flower belongs to the Nelumbo genus and is commonly confused with the Nymphaeaceae (waterlily) family of plant. To date, there are only two living species of lotus recorded - the Nelumbo Nucifera, found in Asia, and the lesser-known Nelumbo Lutea, native to both North America and the Caribbean.
The Nelumbo Nucifera lotus flower, also called Indian lotus, sacred lotus or Egyptian bean, is the most common species of lotus throughout the world. It grows in a wide range of places, from up in the southern Himalayas, stretching from central to Northern India, across Indochina and East Asia and has recently been found in southern India, most of Southeast Asia, New Guinea, Sri Lanka and even in isolated northern and eastern Australia.
While it is not a cold, hardy plant (shown by the places it commonly grows), the lotus can resist temperatures below freezing as long as it is insulated against frost and cold snaps. The viability of this plant has been tested to the extreme degree when 1,300-year-old seeds were recovered and germinated in north-eastern China.
Also called the American lotus, yellow lotus and water-chinquapin, the Nelumbo Lutea is the smaller of the two known living lotus species, with yellow-white flowers reaching a maximum diameter of 18-28cm.
The lotus was originally found in the south, from Minnesota, Oklahoma and Florida to Mexico, Honduras and the Caribbean. Now, it can be found in the northern states in lakes, swamps and flooded areas. It is thought that Native Americans carried the plant as a food source and therefore expanded its distribution.
Symbolism in Different Cultures
The lotus flower has been used as an important symbol throughout multiple cultures in human history, from the Ancient Egyptians to the Native Americans. Many of the meanings are similar, having been inspired by the growth and blooming cycles of the flowers, but each offers a slightly different interpretation. For example, in several modern-day cultures, the lotus flower is revered for its ability to grow unstained from muddy waters and is considered an inspiration for living a well-balanced life, especially when guiding individuals who have matured despite their own turbulent histories or environments.
The lotus flower is referred to in a famous piece of Greek mythology - Odyssey, Book IX, in which the Greek hero Odysseus recounts a time he was blown off course and landed on an island occupied by a race of people known as the Lotus-Eaters. In this case, given the fact that the Greek word 'lôtos' can refer to a few different plants, it is thought that the Lotus-Eaters actually feasted on a species of water lily.
The lotus flower has strong connections to the Ancient Egyptians; however, lotus flowers didn’t arrive in Egypt until the late period from Persia. The two species of “lotus” (water lily) that grew and are most represented in Egypt are the white Nymphaea lotus and the blue Nymphaea Caerulea.
The blue lotus was considered to be the most sacred of the two, due to the blooming cycle carried out by the flower. At the time, the ancient Egyptians thought the flower of the blue lotus closed its petals and sunk beneath the water at night, rising and opening in the morning with the sun. The actual cycle is slightly different. The flowers of the blue lotus do close at night, however, new buds form underwater and open in the morning, whereas the old bloom sinks. Due to the blue lotus flowering all year round, it was affiliated with the sun and used to represent the process of creation and the cycle of life. As the white lotus bloomed towards the evening, it corresponded to the moon and lunar associations.
During the time of the Ancient Egyptians in the city of Hermopolis, the people believed the Sun God had come to earth after emerging from a giant lotus blossom in the primordial waters of the Nun. One of the most famous sculptures from around this period is that of Tutankhamun, represented as the “Reborn Child” or the Sun God, as he rises from the petals of the blue lotus. Furthermore, Nefertum, another Egyptian god, is often depicted as a child perched inside a sacred lotus or as an adult with a large lotus crown. Nerfertum was thought to be the god of healing and due to his connections with the sacred lotus, the lotus plant was regularly used in medicinal treatments.
In addition to medicine, lotus plants were regularly eaten by the Egyptians, soaking the blooms in wine as a festival drink, eating the roots either raw or cooked and grinding the seeds up to a flour consistency for bread.
Lotus flowers were also used for decorating homes, with special flower bowls carved to accommodate the large flowering blooms. The more prestigious or royal members of society often had private gardens containing pools growing lotus and papyrus. Lotuses also featured heavily in all works of Egyptian art, including jewellery, bowls, spoons and mirrors, as well as a huge amount of daily household objects.
Ancient Egyptians had numerous skills and one of the most famous was their ability to make perfumes and fragrant oils. As Egyptian gods and goddesses were considered to have a divine scent, it was only natural to adorn yourself with the scents of the deities. Lotus flowers were used in the creation of such scents and in addition, perfumes were stored in lotus-shaped bottles crafted from limestone.
Lastly, the lotus flower was considered to be a symbol of rebirth with many references to lotus plants and flowers made in funeral scriptures. In particular, the famous Book of the Dead contained a spell that detailed how to “transform oneself into a lotus”, therefore unlocking the secret of resurrection. Lotus flowers were also used as part of floral collars worn by the deceased and the bodies would be anointed with the extracted lotus oils, thought to be one of the Seven Sacred Oils used in Ancient Egypt at the time.
Lotus and Chakras
The lotus flower is used as a symbol for focal points in the body known as Chakras. Some cultures believe that these focal points are the key to leading a well-balanced life and are the points that connect our “physical body” and the “body of mind”. The number of chakras varies depending on the culture, with some texts mentioning five chakras, whereas others mention six or occasionally seven, but all cultures depict chakras in a single file line from the base of the spine to the top of the head. Each chakra has its own colour and a specific number of lotus petals which correlate to the frequency of the chakra. The seven regularly referred to chakras are:
- Root Chakra – found at the base of the spine, red in colour and depicted with four lotus petals
- Sacral Chakra – Orange in colour, the sacral chakra features six lotus petals and is found between the base of the spine and the naval
- Solar Plexus Chakra – Boasting ten lotus petals, the solar plexus chakra is yellow and located in the upper abdomen
- Heart Chakra – The centre of compassion and love, the heart chakra is a green chakra with twelve lotus petals
- Throat Chakra – Found in the neck, the throat chakra is depicted in blue or turquoise and has sixteen lotus petals
- Third Eye Chakra – the most referenced chakra, the third eye chakra is an indigo colour and is found in the middle of the forehead, depicted with 96 lotus petals
- Crown Chakra – the seventh chakra, the crown chakra, is located at the top of the head, shown with 972 petals (often referred to as the thousand-petaled lotus) and is shown in either violet or white
Edible Uses for Lotus
The sacred lotus has a long history of being cultivated for human consumption and an incredible 70% of all lotus that is consumed has been produced in China, farmed from flooded fields and ponds. The lotus plant is safe for human consumption, making it a good food source, particularly in Asian countries including China and Japan, where you can find lotus rhizomes sold frozen, fresh or canned.
In Korea, different types of lotus tea are made using pips, leaves, flowers and seeds. In China, the seeds are used in cooking a wide selection of dishes including noodles, moon cake, food pastes and even fresh lotus seed wine. Both China and Vietnam also use the stamens for brewing tea, while using the large leaves as garnish or wraps for storing food.
Medicinal Uses for Lotus
The lotus flower has been used in medicine around the world for centuries, particularly in Asian countries where the flower has spiritual connections. Its most common use in traditional Chinese medicine is to treat diarrhoea, by soaking the lotus seeds in warm water for several hours before adding rock salt to taste. The leaves and root extract of the lotus are also used to ease period pains, preventing excessive bleeding and helping to regulate the menstrual cycle in traditional medicine.
For general health, the lotus root is used to help lower your body’s blood sugar levels and manage dangerous cholesterol levels which can lead to an unhealthy heart. Research into the effects of lotus seeds has shown that they also offer a strong anti-inflammatory effect, in addition to anti-oxidant properties, which could be used in future medical treatments around the world. A similar study also found that by adding lotus extract to green tea, you can significantly reduce acne breakouts and help keep pores unclogged.
Furthermore, lotus flowers and parts of the lotus plant have been used in the treatment of many other illnesses and afflictions, including fungal infections, stomach cramps, respiratory problems and reducing the risk of anaemia.
The most interesting medicinal use for the lotus comes from the organic compound in the lotus seed embryo known as “neferine”, which can potentially be used to halt the growth and spread of lung cancer cells. More scientific research is being carried out on these seeds and their possible use in future treatment of lung cancers.
While the lotus has an interesting medicinal history and can certainly be added to a healthy diet for extra nutrients – including potassium and vitamin C - you should always speak to your doctor before using lotus as a main medicinal replacement.
In summary, the lotus flower is an incredible plant, with a long, rich history connected to many spiritual customs and cultures and has a stable place in the diets of millions around the world. Not only is it revered for its ability to grow unstained from muddy waters and improve the health of people everywhere, but it is a beautiful flower that is guaranteed to make you smile as you watch the lotus float lazily on the water.