How to Grow and Care for the Lotus Plant

Over the centuries, lotus plants have come to be synonymous with enlightenment, mindfulness, and transformation. They dominate Buddhism and Hinduism wherever metaphorically or allegorically possible. They are the popularly chosen emblem of different groups of people from a wide range of periods. Ancient Egypt’s Ptolemies, esoteric philosophy sects, entire countries like Vietnam and India, eastern religions, ancient Yogis, and today’s mainstream Yoga culture are just a few examples of those who look(ed) to this flower to encapsulate their essences.

And it does so. Easily. Perfectly.

Because of this, it has earned a certain stature. It has a mystique and feels enigmatic, almost like it’s from another realm and too pure for this mortal world.

Even the process of growing, which is a miraculous and beautiful wonder of biology, almost seems beneath it.

2. The physical beauty and characteristics
The physical beauty and characteristics combined with the symbolism associated with it give this flower a magical, other-worldly feel.

It’s as if the flowers are instead spun together by stars and moonlight and sprinkled down onto Earth from whatever deities dwell in the heavens.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, it is most certainly not beneath them. This revered, sacred beauty not only grows out of the ground but grows out of the mud and begins its life cycle in a dirty, murky environment.

What those who have worshipped the flower for generations may have known that for a long time we didn’t is that they are easy, generous growers. Almost exceptionally so, and every part of them is usable in one way or another.

If you have wanted to try water gardening but haven’t been sure where to start, start with a lotus plant.

Let’s get into it!

Lotus Plants and Water Lilies are Not the Same

First and foremost, let’s clarify that lotus plants and water lilies are distinctly different, and this article is about the former. They grow similarly, in the same environment as water garden plants, closely resemble each other in appearance, and in some cases, even do some name-stealing. But biologically, they are quite different and share but a distant relation.

Many people confuse the two; it’s a fairly common mistake.

The quickest way to know the difference is to check their present-day botanical names. Nelumbo is the genus for the lotus plant, and Nelumbo nucifera and Nelumbo lutea are the only two extant (still living) species within that genus.

All water lilies belong to the Nymphaea genus.

So…

Nelumbo = lotus 

Nymphaea = water lily

Confusing matters a bit are the “Egyptian white lotus” (Nymphaea lotus) and “blue Egyptian lotus” (Nymphaea nouchali var. caerulea, or previously Nymphaea caerulea). They are called lotuses, but biologically they are water lilies and belong to the Nymphaea genus. To avoid confusion when using common names and to distinguish actual lotuses from lilies, you will hear gardeners refer to Nelumbo nucifera as “sacred lotus” and Nelumbo lutea as “American lotus.” Without that qualifier, if you walk into a nursery and ask only for a “lotus,” you may end up with a water lily.

Using botanical names, or at least knowing what they are, alleviates this by ensuring you have the option to refer to them if needed.

If you get them confused, don’t feel too bad; Mr. Binomial Nomenclature himself (Linnaeus) didn’t always get it right or avoid ambiguity. He originally called today’s Nelumbo nucifera by a different name: Nymphaea nelumbo, which combines the two names they use today. They would eventually be separated and Nelumbo designated a genus, appropriately distinguishing the lotus from the water lily.

Linnaeus also assigned the genus name “Lotus” (as in Lotus alamosanus) to an entirely separate and unrelated genus of terrestrial legumes. It is not representative of or connected to aquatic lotus plants in any way.

How to Tell Lotus Plants and Water Lilies Apart

3. Physical comparison of Nelumbo and Nymphaea
Physical comparison of Nelumbo and Nymphaea species. Can you tell which is which? When in doubt, look at the tell-tale leaf split in the bottom picture. That tells you it’s a water lily. Top: Nelumbo nucifera (lotus).

Bottom: Nymphaea lotus (water lily aka “Egyptian white lotus”).

There are some readily noticeable physical details you can familiarize yourself with so that you’re able to tell them apart immediately upon first glance. Key identifiers to look for include:

  1. Aerial growth. Nelumbo continue growing upward after they reach the surface of the water. Where a water lily will rest upon the water’s surface (unless it is the tropical variety), Nelumbo leave their first leaves of the season there, but their stem, bloom, and additional leaves keep going. They can get far above the ground and the surface of the water in which they live, reaching heights of up to eight feet.
  2. Leaf structure. Lotuses have peltate leaves, which means they are somewhat shield-shaped. They are circular, have no breaks, and the stem connects on the underside in the center. Water lily leaves have a split, and their stems connect at the base of the split.
  3. Seed receptacles. Every Nelumbo – regardless of hybrid – has a rather prominent cone-shaped receptacle in its center. It is full of holes that are either holding its seeds or are empty after the seeds have dropped. There are those who say that, other than above-surface vs. on-surface growing patterns, this receptacle is the easiest and quickest way to physically distinguish between the two plants. For me, it’s always been the leaves.

4. If youre going to be working with lotuses
If you’re going to be working with lotuses, it’s good to have some general knowledge. Here’s a cheat sheet for quick reference.

Why Use Lotus Plants in Your Garden?

Durability

Nelumbo has become known for durability; I can’t help but think the two remaining species have to be two of the most durable plants in existence. Their seeds can remain viable for unbelievable lengths of time and can do so without water or a growing medium. Even in the event of death involving root system destruction, the seeds those flowers drop remain behind and will immediately sprout again if growing conditions are favorable. There are known cases of this happening with 1200-year-old seeds.

They are so durable they can be invasive. You will want to keep an eye on it as it’s growing to ensure it does not overtake the growing area.

Adaptability

In nature, Nelumbo typically grows in freshwater wetlands and establishes its roots in the mud. That is the preferred environment, but they can adapt to conditions far more hostile. They can survive under ice if their roots are in water or mud. They are also able to withstand full, scorching sun, and they grow in this environment when other plants won’t. Though they prefer a loamy soil heavy in clay, they have adapted without issue to different types of soil throughout a variety of regions.

5. They may look unremarkable but the seedsThey may look unremarkable, but the seeds of the Nelumbo nucifera have a viability that is unmatched. We have seen them grow over 1,200 years after being dropped. “Lotosblume (Nelumbo nucifera)” by blumenbieneCC BY 2.0.

One of their most interesting adaptations is their ability to purify the waters in which they grow. Regardless of how dark, muddy, dirty, or murky it is every night when they submerge, they are pristine, fresh, and clean when they emerge every morning.

This ability to adapt has contributed to the lotus plants’ impressive longevity. They have been growing on this planet for more than 145 million years. Fossils have been discovered that date back to the early cretaceous period in the time of Laurasia. That means they survived, among other things, our planet’s most recent ice age, which started 2.5 million years ago and killed most of the plant life in the northern hemisphere. That ice age did in fact result in their extinction in certain locations, but not globally. The population has long since recovered.

Variety

There may only be two official species still living, but there are hundreds of hybrids and cultivars that add beautiful color options to the pink, white, and pale yellow of the original two plants. There are color gradations such as whites that fade into pink, yellow, or peach-colored edges, or dark, deep pinks that fade to pale pinks. You can also choose different petal patterns, with options ranging from few to heavy. How small they stay or the size they grow to depend on where they live; lotus plants will accommodate the size of their habitat.

Beauty

Lotus plants have arguably one of the most beautiful flowers around. Combined with the rest of their visually interesting architecture, they are a striking presence wherever they grow.

Zen

6. This beautiful patio garden boasts
This beautiful patio garden boasts a cluster of Nelumbo nucifera growing out of the water (under the taller Umbrella Plant). “Fox Point Federated GC, Wisconsin” by National Garden Clubs / CC BY-ND 2.0

Lotus plants convey a feeling of enlightened spirituality, inner peace, and transcendence. While it may only be due to their mystic reputation, the sensations can be palpable – and therefore beneficial – nonetheless. If you have an area you use for yoga or meditation, lotus plants in a pond, water feature, or container would be a perfect addition to that space.

Best of all, they’re easy to grow.

How to Grow Lotus Plants

Here is what you will need:

  • A planting area either in-ground or above-ground with convenient access to water, such as a pond, water feature, or gardening container/pot without holes (above-ground containers work above or in the ground).
  • A neutral-pH planting medium that is loamy and heavy in clay content, if possible, or plant in existing mud (some sources will advise you to use compost; I would avoid it to prevent algae)

7. As a point of reference this DIYAs a point of reference, this DIY planting medium is a bit thick. You do not want standing water, but slightly more saturated than this. “Lotosblume (Nelumbo nucifera)” by blumenbiene / CC BY 2.0

  • A location that will receive 5 to 6 hours of direct sunlight every day so that the water stays within the ideal range of 75 degrees to 85 degrees*
  • A sprouted seed that is ready to go in the planting medium, a tuber, or a specimen from a water garden nursery
  • Fertilizer (remember, no compost – pond tablets are best or you can make your own)

*Nelumbo has a remarkable ability to self-regulate the temperature of its flowers, an adaptation believed to be for attracting pollinators during colder months. They can heat their flowers to over 30 degrees warmer than the air that surrounds it. It is not believed this function affects the water temperature at all as the flower uses this function out of the water.

This video clip speaks about their thermoregulation abilities in more detail, and also happens to show some lovely specimens displaying their height, leaf size, and flower size.

Amazing Lotus Flower – YouTube

Container Gardening: From Seed

Growing from seed is a simple process that begins indoors in a drinking glass.

The outer shell must be slightly cracked, scored, or filed. A hammer performs this task nicely. Tap just enough to score the outer casing without damaging the seed inside. This replicates the kind of wear and tear the seeds might endure in nature.

Next, fill a regular drinking glass with bottled water. Add 4 to 5 seeds per glass. Leave the glass(es) in a light area and change the water every single day.

After about 7 or 8 days, you should have sprouts and a leaf or two growing over the top of the glass. At this point, you can remove the seeds from the glass(es) and transfer them to a small planting container.

8. A close up of the seed receptacle
A close-up of the seed receptacle. This pod has yet to drop its seeds.

Add about 1-1/2″ of soil to the container. Cover with clean water to saturate, but not so much that there is standing water. Plant the sprouted seeds about an inch deep and topdress with small pea gravel.

Place the small container with the newly planted seeds into the center bottom of a larger container and fill it with water.

The plants can remain here or get a transplant to an in-ground medium upon aerial leaf growth (when leaves are growing above the surface of the water).

Container Gardening: Tubers

You will need a container that is wide and shallow. The dimensions will ultimately depend on the size of what you’re planting.

  1. Add about 4-5″ of soil or existing mud to the container.
  2. If using soil, add water, just enough to saturate the soil. Do so without leaving standing water (does not apply if using mud).
  3. Being very gentle, partially bury the tuber in the soil, with the growth tips pointing up and remaining pointing up out of the dirt (exposed).
  4. Add a layer of pea gravel.
  5. Add more water, submerging the exposed tuber growth tips, which from this point on should always be underwater.
  6. Leave above the ground in a sunny spot for growing.
  7. If going in-ground, wait until you see leaves growing above the surface of the water, and then lower into your hole in the ground or pond.

9. If you do not have a pond small barrels
If you do not have a pond, small barrels such as these work great for container water gardening. Even surrounded by all this hardscape, the flowers will thrive.

Nelumbo does best when planted in the spring. Planting at this time usually means blooms from approximately June to October. Some varieties can sometimes be slow to start, especially if they do not have the sun and warm water they need.

Container Gardening: Potted Plants

If you have purchased an already-established Nelumbo in a pot, you’re going to want to transplant it into a larger container right away (or as soon as you possibly can).

Place the pot the plant is in into a larger container. Very gently, work the plant and container with your hands to loosen it for removal. When you can feel a separation between the root ball and the container, tilt the plant to the side as much as you can without losing any soil. You can use your other hand to cover the top to hold it together and to keep loose particles from being lost. Shimmy the root ball free, being careful not to cause any damage, and slide the pot off the root ball. Steady the plant upright and add your soil.

Complete the rest of the steps as outlined above for tubers.

Pond Planting

If you have a pond and don’t mind a complete takeover, Nelumbo love to grow freely (without a container). Some people believe this to be somewhat environmentally irresponsible, and it also attracts large pests such as muskrats. As a result, free growing is often discouraged. The solution to that is to use a container and lower it into the pond. Wait to do so until it can safely handle the moving water.

Care and Maintenance of Lotus Plants

10. This is a healthy specimen
This is a healthy specimen thriving in a container. It may be a touch shady;I would consider moving it to a sunnier location to raise the water temperature and increase the blooms.  “Proteales – Nelumbo nucifera – 2” by DenesFeri. / CC BY-SA 4.0.

Nelumbo are relatively low-maintenance. Their proper care and maintenance are going to consist mainly of the following:

  • Maintain water temperature and sun exposure. These two things are essential for blooms, so staying on top of them is crucial. While they do love the direct sunlight and can handle hot temperatures, give them a little shade if you start to see any leaf burn.
  • Pruning. Prune above the water surface only. Do not trim anything below the surface because that material is the direct source of oxygen for roots and tubers. You can prune off flowers that are wilting or molting, and also any damaged or yellowing leaves.
  • Protect against pests. Lotus plant leaves have fine hairs, which means any insecticides with detergents or oils will harm the plants, possibly even kill them. That includes organics. Here’s a quick reference for what works best:
    • aphids, whitefly, and spider mites: diatomaceous earth powder
    • China mark moth: Dipel
    • slugs and snails: relocate plants further away from the water’s edge
    • consider this: once your plant has some aerial growth, you can remove all floating leaves, which helps mitigate the presence of some insects

11. This lotus shows evidence of insect
This lotus shows evidence of insect leaf damage. CC0 1.0 (Public Domain)

  • Overwintering. In warmer climates, lotus plants can typically winter in place. All you need to do in this case is to allow the last growth to turn brown, then prune above the surface. At this point, they will go dormant.
    • Pond lotus can stay in the pond provided they are at a depth that is below the freeze line. That may mean relocating to a deeper part of the pond then raising them again the following spring. Remember to prune off any brown or dead parts before sinking.
      • If either of those is not an option, you can store them inside a garage to protect them from frosts. Keep them in water, and continue to replenish the water supply as it evaporates; this applies to all cases.
        • If space is an issue, you can harvest the tubers in the fall, clean and separate them, and put them in dry storage until the following spring.
          •  If the lotus has no cold hardiness, consider it an annual and compost it with any other spent plant material.

As long as the plants or tubers you’re using remain healthy, you should be able to repeat this process for many growing seasons. You can also harvest the seeds and tubers from your lotus plants to start new crops and in all probability never be without lotuses ever again.

Additional Lotus Benefits

Now that you have some mature lotus plants on hand, and more to come season after season, you may want to consider using them for more than just the aesthetic aspect.

There are numerous health benefits to ingesting various parts of the Nelumbo. The flowers can treat intestinal issues. The seeds can treat inflammation and acne. Specific parts of the seed also treat high blood pressure, anxiety disorders, and insomnia.

12. Korean lotus root dumpling
Korean lotus root dumpling, at Korean Cultural Celebration, part of the Festál series of ethnic events at Seattle Center, Seattle, Washington, U.S. “Korean lotus root dumpling” by Joe Mabel. / CC BY-SA 3.0

They may even be the key to treatment for lung cancer. Recent studies have revealed the presence of an alkaloid that inhibits cancer cell growth in this area of the body.

Nelumbo are edible and can be consumed for nutrition. There is a wealth of information available about the nutritional value of its various parts. You can even see recipes and examples of cooked meals where it’s incorporated.

Lotus: More Than Just a Flower

I’m a landscaper, so to say I like lotus plants doesn’t mean much. I like most plants. It’s sort of my thing. I have my go-to’s, my bucket list, and my favorites. But then apart from all that, there are one or two that are significant to me, not because of my work, but for either sentimental or deeply personal reasons.

Lotus is one of those plants. For me, it symbolizes surviving a life-changing experience. It reminds me that staying connected is necessary to escape the dark.

13. lotus lily

Sometimes that’s life. Sometimes it’s dark and we don’t always know which way to go because we can’t see the light. Life can hurt, and be painful, and pain can shut people down. A hard world often makes it hard to stay connected. The lotus reminds me that we can go through the worst experiences imaginable, and if the love inside we once had is restored, we’ve found the light.

It reminds me that no matter the difficulty of what we’re enduring, we’re not the only ones. Everyone wrestles with personal demons at one time or another. When I see a lotus, I immediately feel connected, and am reminded we’re all in this experience of life together.

lotus flower lotus plant

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