When I was young, aeons ago, my parents took the Sunday Express every weekend.
And in those days one ‘took’ a newspaper, one did not ‘buy’ a newspaper … and I always read the entries in Ripley’s ‘Believe it or not.’ Well believe it or not, lotus flowers bloom in the United Kingdom, not just in the exotic plant houses of botanic gardens or in the terrariums of mansions, but in the countryside! For the wildflowers which we call birdsfoot trefoil are, botanically, Lotus corniculatus … meaning ‘the lotus with small horns’… members of the same extended family as the possibly more familiar sweet pea. And ‘lotus’ is a Greek name applied to several plants and signifies very little in this context.
But the lotus of which most people have heard is the lotus which is revered in many parts of the world as a sacred flower. In Egypt, the native lotus plants have one of two botanical names - Nymphaea lotus or Nymphaea caerulea … the water plant (Nymphaea) with deep blue flowers (caerulea) or which has white flowers (the meaning ascribed to the word lotus in this context). Travel to India and the native lotus plants there are Nelumbo nucifera … the lotus plant which bears nuts … and whose blossoms are either pink or white. That’s three different plants which are called ‘lotus’ … Lotus, Nymphaea and Nelumbo … although it is the latter two which are held to be sacred plants in all Asian and oriental cultures, particularly the nut-bearing lotus, Nelumbo nucifera.
The growth habit of Nelumbo nucifera explains its exalted position in the cultures of the Far East. Its roots are in the mud and its stems grow through the water to support strongly-scented pink or white flowers in the sunshine. This growth habit is said to mirror the progression of the human soul from the mud of sordid materialism through the waters of experience to arrive in the sunlight of enlightenment. The contemporary Californian writer and motivator Cath Jayasuriya, describing having seen lotus blooms in Cambodia, writes in similar terms. “To me, the lotus in the mud symbolizes the hardships and difficulties of life, or a challenging time we have faced or are facing. As with the stem growing toward the surface, we also grow through our experiences, through our difficulties, learning lessons along the way, removing obstacles and overcoming our adversities. As the petals unfold, we too unfold, and become like a lotus rising from the murky waters and flowering into something beautiful. Its open blossom stands for enlightenment.”
With the onset of evening, the lotus flower slips beneath the surface of the water on which it floats during the daylight hours, emerging the following morning to catch the rays of the sun. This was a key factor in its importance in worship in ancient Egypt, being regarded as a symbol of the sun and so standing for creation and rebirth. One Egyptian myth which revolves around the lotus tells that, during creation time, a giant lotus flower grew out of a pond and from it the sun rose. But, though that is mere myth, it is a fact that the lotus is unique in its habit of bearing buds, flowering and fruiting simultaneously; and it is a remarkable fact that a pure white flower emerges from the depths of muddy swamps and floats on muddy water, entirely unstained by its environment. This endows the plant with the notion of purity, to which may be added firmness from the rigidity of the stem; prosperity, from its luxurious flowers and foliage; and many descendants, from the abundance of its seeds. Add its harmony with all three tenses … past, present and future … from the fact that it is in bud, is flowering and has seed all at the same time and it is easy to understand why these beautiful flowers were, and are, held in such high esteem in many parts of the world.