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What is a Lotus?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A lotus is a type of aquatic plant in the water lily family. The formal name is Nelumbo nucifera, although it is known by a variety of other native names in the countries where it grows. The plant has long been valued as a religious symbol by numerous cultures, and is also a useful source of food, since most of the parts of the plant are edible. It is also used in landscaping, because it can make a very attractive water feature.

The leaves of a lotus are round, and they float on the surface of the water, connected to long trailing stems which terminate in rhizomes running below the mud of the river or lake bed. A rhizome is a type of plant root which is capable of putting out fresh shoots, reproducing the plant and potentially colonizing a large area. The plant also puts out pink to white blossoms that drift on the surface, closing up at night. When the flowers go to seed, they form distinct disc-shaped perforated seed pods.

The flowers, leaves, roots, and seeds of the lotus are all edible. In Southeast Asia, where the plant is native, these plant parts have been used for food for many centuries. Various parts are used in steamed buns, stir fry, desserts, and other dishes. The fragrant flowers add a distinctive scent and flavor to the dishes they are used in.

Important religious significance is attached to the lotus. According to Buddhist tradition, the plant is associated with enlightenment and the Buddha. It is also sacred to followers of Hindu tradition, and is the national flower of India. A relative of the lotus, Nymphaea lotus or the tiger lotus, was imported to Egypt, where it played an important role in religious ceremonies and culture. Numerous paintings and sculptures depict its use in religious ceremonies and as a sacred ornament.

Mythology also has a special place for the lotus. In The Odyssey, Homer almost loses several sailors to the clan of the “lotus eaters.” The mythical plants in Homer's epic apparently induced drowsiness and general apathy, causing those who consumed them to abandon their quest. The exact plant involved in the story is unclear, but it may have been the blue lotus, a plant well known to the Greeks for its psychotropic properties.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By TheGraham — On Jun 14, 2011

Wow, there's a lot stuff about lotus flowers in this discussion that I never would have guessed. I know it's considered a sacred flower in Buddhism, because it's symbolism for Buddha himself, but I had no idea about some of the other things on here.

I guess it's not hard to imagine lotus flowers in Egypt, since they don't do well in cold weather, they're ancient enough to have been around when Buddhism was invented, and they grow on water. I'll bet the Nile has lotus flowers.

Did you guys know that lotus flowers are edible? In fact, the entire plant is edible. In Asia they use lotus flower petals as garnishes, and the big flat leaves as wraps for food while cooking it.

It might be considered a sacred flower that represents Buddha in India, but the seeds and stems of lotus flowers are eaten there all the time, too. In fact, pickled lotus stems are a normal dish throughout India. I wonder if they're any good?

Lotus plants flower in white or pink; I always wondered what the difference was between plants, because some have much bigger flowers than others, too. There's an American kind of lotus, too, and another kind that some people call the Chinese Lotus and others call the Indian Lotus. I guess it depends on what country you're in at the time!

I hear you can get a lotus plant that blooms with both white and pink flowers at the same time. I want one of those.

By seHiro — On Jun 11, 2011

@Malka - LOL -- some of those symbolism meanings on your list are really funny! "Sexual prison" was probably invented by somebody stuck in a loveless marriage. The one about Egypt is cool; ancient Egyptian stuff in general is pretty fascinating, and very unique to other cultures around the world, I think.

Back to the topic at hand... I always knew lotus flowers were a part of Buddhism because they put pictures of them on everything. I once got a little card that shows you where each of your chakras is, and the chakras were each a round lotus flower icon in a different color.

I know a lot of people think of China or Japan when they think of Buddhism, but whenever I think of it, I think of India. Chakras and Buddhism and astrology are really big over there, and astrology in particular is still strongly believed in today.

Oh, and speaking of India, did you know that the pink lotus is India's national flower? I wonder if that has anything to do with the symbolism and Buddhist meanings associated with it. Food for thought!

By malmal — On Jun 08, 2011

@anon2955 - Lotus plants float because, though they're a water plant, they need the sun to grow, so the flowers and leaves need to be on the surface.

Lotus leaves are very broad, leathery in texture, and flat, which helps them spread out across the surface of water like a boat does and lets them float instead of sinking. The flowers actually stick a little bit above the water rather than floating on it.

Lotus flowers' stems have little air bubbles built into the sides going up, which makes the stems more buoyant, allowing them to float and hold the flowers up in the air and sun. That's why lotus flowers can still have such narrow petals and float; unlike the leaves, the petals don't have to be broad or leathery since the stems are the part that's keeping them afloat.

Lotus flowers are really designed to work perfectly in their environment. When they release seeds, they have little membranes filled with air around them that let the seeds float to a new spot in the water.

After they've far enough away from the plants, the membranes rot away, letting the air escape, and the seeds sink down to the bottom of the water and sprout there. It works out so well, it's kind of amazing.

Pretty neat, huh? I think it's fascinating how the lotus plant has evolved to have air bubbles and wide leaves in order to float as well as it does, but the part about the seed membranes is just awesome.

I've always admired lotus flowers; maybe I should buy some for the pond at my parents' house. I'll bet they wouldn't mind something pretty like that in there.

By Malka — On Jun 05, 2011

Lotus flowers are not only beautiful but they have an impressive list of symbolism meanings attached to them. My friend is into yoga and meditation, and she says in Buddhist beliefs, the lotus flower stands for Nirvana.

No, not the band -- Nirvana is basically the state of absolute enlightenment that the mind can reach through enough refinement and meditation and stuff.

After she explained about lotus flowers and Nirvana, it made me super curious about how long lotus flowers have meant that (I mean, Buddhism is a really old religion!), so I looked up lotus flower symbolism, and wow! So much meaning all packed into one little water flower.

Here are some things lotuses stand for:

Nirvana (of course)

The sun



Creative power

Egyptian royalty


I'm not making this stuff up, I read all of these in a book about symbolism I got from the library. Anyway, in Buddhism, lotus flowers mean different things depending on how many petals they have. It can go from five petals all the way up to a thousand. Pretty interesting stuff!

By anon153974 — On Feb 19, 2011

where can i buy the lotus root?

By anon41445 — On Aug 15, 2009

Because it is living in the lake.

By anon2955 — On Aug 02, 2007

why do lotus plants float?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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