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Winter and the sacred lotus

By Matt Philpott, Botanic Garden
trainee
Late summer seems like a lifetime ago now the days are short and we’ve seen the first frosts of the season. But, if I cast my mind back to the first time I stepped into our tropical glasshouse this summer, as a shiny new trainee….I wiped clean my foggy glasses and was immediately blown away by the stunning Sacred Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), in full flower in the pool. The vibrant colours and sheer height of the flowers looked stunning against the backdrop of green foliage in the glasshouse.

The Sacred Lotus is a fascinating plant that’s been cultivated in China for over 3,000 years. It’s now grown around the world, not just for the gorgeous flowers, but for deep cultural and religious significance to Hindus and Buddhists, as well as a source of medicine and food.

Nelumbo nucifera
It didn’t occur to me on that first day quite how much work goes on behind the scenes to keep this beautiful plant at its best every year. Over the last few months I’m very privileged to have found out how to grow the lotus first hand.

The Sacred Lotus is an aquatic perennial, which due to the short and cold UK winter days, slows down and enters a dormant period here in Bristol. While our tropical glasshouse is still pretty toasty in the winter, the pool isn’t heated. (A cold pool in a plus 20 degree room never fails to surprise me when I hop in!) During the winter, to ensure the best possible display when the lotus returns to growth in the next spring, we take the plants out of the pool to rest in cooler and drier conditions.

The lotus started to slow down and stopped flowering in our glasshouse in October and over a couple of weeks we gradually pruned back all of the remaining leaves. The lotus are potted up in containers to prevent them from completely taking over the tropical pool. Which means it’s possible to dig about in their muddy home and lift the pots out of the water. Having said that, it was still a three man job to lift the water logged lotus out of the water! They sat on the sides of the pool (releasing a pungent smell of decomposition) before we tidied them up and moved them to a cooler glasshouse where they’ll recuperate over winter, ready for a burst of growth in spring.

Having spent a day pulling the plants out of a muddy pool I can certainly understand why Buddhists see the lotus as a symbol of beauty and purity - when contrasted with the dark mud they grow out of.

Buddha on a lotus throne.
The loss of the lotus has left the pool looking just a little bit bare at this time of year. That is apart from the ever-present Duckweed, which never fails to impress me with how quickly it jumps back after a day of netting! The pool might be sparse right now, but it will all be worth it when our visitors enjoy the majesty of the complex and beautiful flowers of the Sacred Lotus next year.

So, here’s looking forward to longer days. I now know what it takes to put on that amazing summer lotus show and feel I’ve earnt the joy of looking at them next year just that little bit more.

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