Let there be lotus: easy-grow plants for pots & ponds
These symbols of spiritual enlightenment o er an architectural beauty and heavenly fragrance that few plants can match. ARNO KING explains how to grow lotuses in ponds and pots
Regarded as the most iconic flower in the world, the lotus is renowned as a symbol of spiritual enlightenment, divine perfection and beauty, realisation of inner potential, purity, immortality and rebirth.
Some lotuses are native to Australia and are featured widely in advertising for our tropical north, and all plant parts are edible. Yet despite their popularity in literature, imagery and perfumery, many Australians confuse lotuses with waterlilies, and fewer people grow them in their gardens. I hope to convert you! Everyone has room for at least one lotus plant in their garden or on a terrace.
Lotuses and waterlilies grow in water, worship the sun and have large, round leaves, but the resemblance ends there, for lotuses are quite unrelated to waterlilies, and taxonomically they are more closely aligned to members of the protea family, in the order of Proteales.
Scholars have long noted how these plants, which are found along the still margins of lakes and ponds, grow with their roots in the stinking mud, and rise above the water to the light, producing beautifully perfumed flowers.
I love the architectural qualities of the leaves. They are a pale bluish-green, resemble green, upturned umbrellas and sway in the lightest breeze or clatter in the rain. Children are fascinated by the way water droplets roll around on them like beads of mercury.
Flowers appear during the warmer months, and there is profuse production of flowers as the plant surges into growth. This is cause for celebration in many cultures. Each flower lasts
2–3 days, closing each night.
The acclaimed perfume changes throughout the day. In the morning it has spicy overtones of cinnamon and is loved by tiny beetles, but by the afternoon it is pure lotus, an exquisite perfume with hints of rose, which is alluring to both humans and bees.
Flowers vary immensely and many cultivars are grown in Australia.
A mass of lotus blooms (Nelumbo ‘Perry Slocum’) standing tall above dinner plate-sized leaves.
These are principally cultivars of the sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), but a few cultivars of American lotus (N. lutea) are also grown. Flowers range in colour from the purist white through to cream, yellow, apricot, pink and the deepest crimson red. There are also cultivars with bicoloured petals. I love the white cultivars with pink tips, or flowers combining pale yellows and apricots.
Flowers may be single, semi-double or double, with some appearing to have hundreds of petals. The blooms vary in character, as some have pointed or pinched petal tips while others bear broad and rounded petals.
As the weather cools, plant growth slows and the leaves start to die off. In my Brisbane garden, the plants grow and flower well into winter, and they die down for only 1–2 months (some varieties maintain one or two leaves). However, in cooler climates in southern parts of Australia, the plant may remain dormant for many months. In the tropics, plants die down but may retain a few floating leaves before surging into growth with the warming weather.
Lotuses grow well in lakes and ponds, but also in pots that are filled with water, with a substrate at their base. After working for many years in South-East
Asia, I’m a sucker for growing lotuses in pots, and always keep my eyes peeled for large pots – 80cm x 80cm or larger, with drainage holes that can be readily plugged. There is a wonderful range of small and medium-sized lotus cultivars that thrive in these pots. There are also tiny lotus cultivars, called rice bowl lotuses, which do well in much smaller pots.
In a pot or pond, lotuses need a substrate to grow on – garden soil, particularly a clay loam, is ideal. Potting mixes or
landscape soils are not suitable as they foul the water. I try to have at least 20cm soil depth, but this can be reduced for smaller cultivars. I also put a few tiny fish – generally paradise fish – in each pot to avoid mosquitoes.
Lotus plants grow from white stolons (horizontal stems) that weave their way across the substrate surface and are anchored by roots growing at their nodes (leaf joints). In more temperate varieties, these stolons become swollen tubers that survive the winter cold, and resemble a string of sausages. Tropical forms, however, including our own native lotus, generally remain as slender stolons.
The stolons and new growth are quite brittle and they are readily damaged when transplanting. To minimise damage, it is best to purchase vigorous potted plants directly from the nursery at the start of the growing season and then carefully place the potted plant in your pond or pot, which will be filled with water and have a substrate layer at its base. Place the potted plant in a depression, level with the surrounding substrate, so the stolons can head off horizontally and root into the surrounding substrate.
If you obtain bare-rooted plants, be extremely careful and do not cover the growing tips with soil or damage them in any way. Your plants may be a little slow at first, but once they become established, they will grow vigorously.
Lotus plants are very responsive to food. If they are fed with small quantities twice monthly, they flower profusely and produce rich bluish-green leaves. Plants seem to prefer organic fertilisers, and pelletised chicken manure is popular with growers. Wrap a handful of pellets
in a sheet of newspaper or paper towel, plunge it into the substrate and cover. You will see the response within days. I have also had great success spraying the leaves with diluted fish emulsion. While beads of water don’t penetrate the leaves, fish emulsion is absorbed when sprayed lightly. Plants in ponds require less regular feeding than those in pots.
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT Pink petals of Nelumbo ‘Red River’ darken to red on the edges; beautiful double-flowered N. ‘Roseum Plena’; N. ‘Xiao Bi Tai’ suits small pots; the petals of N. ‘Paleface’ have darker tips; the pretty N. ‘Pink Bowl’.
The large, bluish-green lotus leaves look like upturned umbrellas; a beautiful lotus bud about to burst into bloom. FROM LEFT