Water lotuses are, almost without argument, the most spectacular of the flowering ornamental pond plants, so
much so that several cultures consider
the iconic Nelumbo nucifera sacred. The
Sacred Lotus, as it is commonly known, is
a firm fixture in the Buddhist and Hindu
traditions, as well as in Egyptian culture
following its introduction from the East.
Additionally, it is used for some traditional
Asian herbal medicines, and N. nucifera is
the national flower of India.
All parts of both N. nucifera and its sister
species, N. lutea, are also edible, and seeds,
flowers, stems, and leaves have been used
by Asian and Native American cultures for
various purposes, including using the large
leaves as plates and wraps for food. It is no
surprise that these beautiful and versatile
plants are so highly regarded by many—
they are truly jewels of the pond.
There are two species of water lotus
currently being cultivated, both perennials.
The most commonly available in the
ornamental trade is the aforementioned
tropical sacred lotus (N. nucifera), which is
found in India and other Asian countries,
northern Australia, and areas of North
Africa, including Egypt. Many varieties of
this species are available. Flower colors
include white/cream, pink/red, and yellow,
and there are double-bloom lotuses as well.
The stems usually range in size from 18
to 60 inches ( 46 to 152 cm) tall and feature
leaves of more than 12 inches ( 30 cm) in
diameter and flowers that can grow to the
same size. It is easy to distinguish a water
lily from a lotus, as lily leaves and flowers
float on the surface and those of the lotus
normally rise above. Long, submersed
stems can reach 6 feet ( 1. 8 meters). Smaller
variants (e.g., dwarf lotus) often have stems
of 2 to 4 feet ( 61 to 122 cm).
The other species is the more temperate-tolerant North American lotus, N. lutea. N.
lutea is hardier in cooler climates than N.
nucifera but is otherwise similar in terms of
care, as well as in appearance. This species
tends to have pale yellow to white flowers
that are slightly smaller than those of N.
nucifera. Hybrid breeding between these
two species has created some interesting
and hardy ornamentals that are available
In both lotus species, leaves begin
floating and then grow aloft on tall stems.
Flowers are also held far above the water
line, and following the petal drop (usually
after a few days), the remaining yellow seed
pod enlarges and turns green, then brown
before releasing seeds back to the water. In
cooler climates, most lotuses will lose all
leaves after flowering and become dormant
The key to lotus success is sun and
warmth. Lotuses will not thrive in anything
less than six or more hours of direct sunlight
per day, though some stunted growth may
occur, and should have eight hours or
more to flower well. Some may learn to
thrive in partial shade in warm tropical
areas, but direct sun and warmth is ideal
for good growth and prolific flowering for
all varieties. Water temperatures must also
be high enough for flowering—between
Jewels of the Pond
Lea Maddocks has been a longtime
underwater and aquarium enthusiast,
keeping aquaria and ponds for much of
her life, as well as scuba diving since
age 15. A biologist (BSc, Hons, MPhil),
she has a fascination with aquarium
science including fish, invert, plant and
reef husbandry, aquarium ecology, and
the art of aquascaping. She operates a
professional business that specializes in
aquarium and vivarium maintenance.
She is also an active member of the
Canberra District Aquarium Society, has
contributed advice to fish and aquatic
plant forums, and has written for the
Australian RSPCA on a variety of
subjects, including betta and goldfish care.