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.