“When the lotus flowers bloom in summer, they close at night and open in the morning. Yun used to put some tea leaves in a little silk bag and place it in the centre of the flower at night. We would take it out the next morning, and make tea with spring water, which would then have a very delicate flavour.”
Shen Fu, Six Chapters of a Floating Life
The Lotus is usually considered the flower of summer, a blossom of Nelumbonaceae is usually the first thing you picture when you think of a lotus: Nelumbo lutea or Wild American lotus. The Native American Lotus is also known as the Yellow Lotus or Water-chinquapin. I’m one of the places in California where a lotus should survive, though I confess, despite several tries, all I can grow is water lilies, Nymphaea.
But I wish to distinguish these from the lotus of Chinese myth and legends which is probably the Asiatic Lotus, Nelumbo nucifera. The Asiatic Lotus is also identified as the blue lotus, Indian Lotus or Sacred Lotus. The Chinese recognize lotus as the flower of July.
The lotus is more than a flower. It is seed and root. Many cultures associate the 3-stage transformation as an emblem of past, present and future. Lotus can represent change, and can be the emblem of purity: it resurrects from the muddy black root to produce a flower so pure and lovely that it represents truth.
But pictured here are the frost killed lotus blossoms of last summer flowers, with their heads hanging down like so many bells to reflect their seeds in the water. This picture taken on New Year’s Eve, 2009 at Huntington Gardens’ Chinese Garden of Flowering Fragrence in Pasadena, California.
Shen Fu illustrates how practical Chinese peasants appreciated the lotus to be one of the most useful of all ornamental plants. Some contemporary herbals insist the lotus root is poison ( (Jeanne Rose’s Herbal, Herbs & Things (1972). However, Chinese people know the lotus root is sweet and can be eaten as fruit, salad, or as base for soup. Nutritional contributions of the lotus root include iron, vitamins B & C and efficacy as a febrifuge.
Shen Fu’s floating world referred to special places for geisha to idealize woman and remain somehow pure. Yet he includes his recipe for growing lotus flowers that “will be only the size of a wine cup, while the leaves will be about the size of a bowl, very cute and beautiful to look at.” Presumably, such flowers would adorn suitably-sized bonsai gardens or miniature landscapes with mountain-shaped stone.
To my north, I happen upon these bowing lotus seeds, nodding above the surface of the pond, preparing to keep their promise, to begin their dignified, almost smug, subterranean journey that will bring Spring’s blossoms. The picture was taken in Pasadena California on the eve of the New Year's Day Rose Parade. Sidewalks blossomed with people staking out either side of Colorado Avenue, snug in their lawn chairs and quilted coats. For one night a year, this street's sidewalks are inhabited - from one year into the next. This night, the population is not exactly the street people one typically finds in urban winter landscapes.
A few days later I traveled in the other direction. To my south, I see poverty and blight in my usually invisible neighbors. The border crossing is about 20 miles from my house. The streets are alive with life, color, smells of chorizo, taco stands, hot peppers and steaming corn tortillas. We went to buy prescription heart medication for an uninsured person at a cost less than the $10 co-pay I pay for mine.
This is the Mexican side's view at the border crossing between Tecate, Mexico, and Tecate, California. If not precisely impregnable, it clearly conveys that poor people are no longer welcome to California. They once were. The colors of the dry winter landscape are parched like the stalks of the lotus, if somewhat lacking in somber grace, these two pictures mark the stark border between the rich and the poor.
Here in rural San Diego, I stand at the threshold separating Winter from Spring. I stand at the beginning of the last year of the first decade of the new millennium. Here I pause. Whether I use lotus as a myth, a food or medicine, or as an inspiration, I want to find in the lotus an appreciation of all the stages of life, not merely youth. I want to find for rich and for poor, that we pay attention this year to the public mood and continue to hope for tolerance and compassion instead of hate and fear. My hope for 2010 is that I wait a bit longer before starting on about how this year has been a rough one for me. The year feels new, pure and ready to promise renewal.