Sacred Lotus
Nelumbo nucifera
Water Lotus family (Nelumbonaceae)

Description: This perennial plant is an emergent aquatic that produces individual leaves and flowers directly from the root system. The blades of the leaves either float on the surface of the water, or they are held up to 5' above the water surface by their petioles (often the latter). These circular peltate blades are 1-3' across, medium green or blue-green, and hairless. Their margins are smooth, often undulating up and down. Each leaf blade above the water surface is depressed toward the middle where it is joined by the petiole. Many veins radiate from its center in all directions; these veins become forked as they approach the outer margin of the blade. The stout petioles are light green, terete, hairless, and either smooth or somewhat prickly. The interior of each petiole contains hollow chambers that keep the petiole erect and convey oxygen to the root system.

Individual flowers are held up to 6' above the water surface by their peduncles (flowering stalks). Each flower is 4-10" across, consisting of about 15 pink tepals, a golden yellow receptacle, and a dense ring of golden yellow stamens (although the anthers are often white). The receptacle, which is located in the center of the flower, is shaped like an upside-down cone. Along its flat upper surface, there are 15-35 short styles that look like small bumps. The blooming period occurs during the summer and can last 2 months. The short-lived flowers open up during the morning and begin to lose their petals by the afternoon; they have a pleasant fragrance. Each flower is replaced by a seedpod spanning 3-5" across and -1" deep; this seed pod becomes dark brown at maturity. Along the upper surface of the seedpod, individual seeds are exposed in small chambers. Eventually, each seedpod bends downward to release its seeds into the water. The root system has thick rhizomes with fibrous roots. Sacred Lotus spreads by its rhizomes or seeds; it often forms sizable colonies.

Cultivation: The preference is full sun, water up to 6' deep, mucky submerged soil, and a sheltered location with little exposure to wind and waves. This introduced plant can spread aggressively and completely take over a shallow pond. Some cultivars of the Sacred Lotus are hardy to Zone 5. The seeds of Sacred Lotus can remain viable for several centuries.

Range & Habitat: Thus far, there are no records of the non-native Sacred Lotus escaping from cultivation and naturalizing into new areas within the state of Illinois (see Distribution Map). However, many states in southeastern United States have records of such escaped plants, and there is some evidence that Sacred Lotus has escaped in Ohio, West Virginia, New Jersey, and New York. There is really no reason why this plant can't escape from cultivation in Illinois. Habitats include small ponds and shallow areas of lakes and rivers. Sacred Lotus is native to southern and eastern areas of Asia.

Faunal Associations: Information about floral-faunal relationships is unavailable for Sacred Lotus in North America. However some floral-faunal relationships of the native Nelumbo lutea (American Lotus) are known, which may generalize to the Sacred Lotus. For the American Lotus, typical flower visitors are various bees, including the small oligolectic bees Hylaeus nelumbonis, Lasioglossum nelumbonis, and Lasioglossum nymphaearum. These floral visitors collect pollen from the flowers. Caterpillars of two moths, Bellura obliqua (Cattail Borer Moth) and Ostrinia penitalis (Lotus Borer Moth), bore through the pedicels of the leaves and peduncles of the flowers. Among waterfowl, the Canada Goose, Mallard, and Northern Shoveler eat the seeds of American Lotus.

Photographic Location: A pond at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois, where a colony of Sacred Lotus persisted for several years, although it was later destroyed.

Comments: This exotic wetland plant has huge leaves and flowers. Sacred Lotus is very showy and attractive, but potentially invasive of some wetland habitats should it escape. The native species, Nelumbo lutea (American Lotus), is also very showy and attractive, and it can spread aggressively in some wetland habitats as well. Because American Lotus has pale yellow flowers, it is easy to distinguish from Sacred Lotus. Otherwise, these two species are very similar in appearance. Cultivars that are hybrids of these two species tend to have whitish pink flowers. In east Asia, the rhizomes and seeds of Sacred Lotus are used as a source of food. The seeds can be cooked and eaten like popcorn.