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Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.

 
 
 
 

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Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.

 
 
 
 

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Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.

 
 
 
 

Plant Profiles

Perry's Giant Sunburst lotus rhizomes

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No, not a sea monster.  No, not an extraterrestrial.  These are lotus roots, which have coiled round and round in their pot.  It's time to divide.  Lotuses are best grown in round black dishpan-like containers, the size that Darth Vader would use on a camping trip.  The roots are extremely fast-growing, racing round the container in a warm-weather spring. 

 

This "wreath" of roots was formed over just one season.

 

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The roots are tuberous, the size and shape of bananas strung end-to-end.  Leaves, flowerbuds, black rootlets, and, occasionally, side branches of new tubers form only at the joints where one tuber meets the next.

 

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Uncoiled, the chain of tubers is over ten feet long!

 

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Here's the start—the length of tuber and roots that I received in the mail last Spring. 

 

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Most of the older tubers can be discarded.  After carefully cutting the new tubers from the chain—keeping the ruff of black roots at the hind end of each intact—I can repot just them.  All of these tubers arose from just one that was planted last Summer, so by next Spring, I'll have quite a bumper crop when I repot yet again.

 

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Thank goodness lotus tubers are edible.

 

 

Here's how to grow this bizarre as well as beautiful aquatic perennial:

 

Latin name

Nelumbo 'Perry's Giant Sunburst'

Common name

'Perry's Giant Sunburst' Lotus

Family

Nelumbonaceae, the Lotus family.

What kind of plant is it?

Hardy aquatic flowering perennial.

Hardiness

Zones 4 - 11. This aquatic perennial's tuberous roots colonize the soil at the bottom of earth-bottom ponds, or the soil in containers fully submerged in lined ponds.  The stems of the leaves can reach the surface of water that's as much as five feet deep—and then continue upward, above the water, two to six feet higher. 

Habit

Spreading, with strongly upright leaves and flowers.

Rate of Growth

In ideal habitat, very fast—even alarmingly so.

Size in ten years

Full-sized lotuses that are planted directly into earth-bottomed ponds can spread their chains of banana-like tubers outward by many yards a season, season after season.  In a decade, 'Perry's Giant Sunburst' could easily colonize a quarter of an acre and more.

 

The mature size of a lotus colony that grows in a submerged container is contained:  The cluster of large leaves and flowers might be four or five feet across, projecting two to five feet above the water line.  

Texture

Dense and tropical-looking.  The round bluish leaves, held above the water, are unique to lotuses.  They grow thickly enough to cast the water beneath them into full shade:  Lotuses are peerless "groundcovers" for ponds.

Grown for

its size: Full-sized lotuses, such as 'Perry's Giant Sunburst', are magnificent and even mesmerizing beasts.  They are, overwhelmingly, everyone's first choice in a lotus, not least just because they are so huge in leaf, overall size, and, of course, in flower.  The charms of a dwarf lotus, such as 'Baby Doll', are usually discovered later. 

 

its foliage:  Blue-green leaves are nearly circular, with the leaf stem attached at the center, to form a shallow bowl of foliage well over a foot across.

 

its flowers:  Swooningly dramatic, the foot-wide blossoms have creamy white petals.  The immense, flat-topped edifice at the center of the blossom is known as the carpellary receptacle.  It contains the stigmas, and is what develops into the flat seed-pods that contain their distinctive rattling seeds.  Around the base of the receptable is a large and very full ruff of right-yellow stamens, also butter yellow.  Bees adore the flowers, besieging them four and five at a time; they have particular interest in the stamens, among which they tumble like kids in a rock-concert mosh pit.  The flowers keep to a three-day schedule, closing up at night and opening still wider the next day.  (The night-time closure helps the interior of the flowers maintain a markedly warmer temperature than the surroundings.  The difference can be as much as 40 degrees; the heat is assumed to keep the flowers maximally attractive to their insect pollinators, who are more active in the warmth.)  By day four, the party's over.  The petals and stamens fall away suddenly, and the now-pollinated ovules in the base of the receptacle begin their transformation to round-seeded maturity.

 

its cosmopolitan distribution: Lotus tubers don't tolerate frost but are hardy anywhere the water is deep enough that the pond's surface-ice doesn't freeze all the way down to the soil, and yet is not so deep that their leaves can't reach at least a bit above the water's surface to get the full sun they need to grow and flower: From the frost-free tropics of Zone 11, then, all the way down to the seriously-Wintered Zone 4 of Northern Vermont and Canada.  Few plants, aquatic or terrestrial, have such a world-wide versatility.

Flowering season

July into Fall.

Color combinations

The white petals of the enormous flowers, as well as the gently blue leaves, enable 'Perry's Giant Sunburst' to go with everything.  The prominent yellow of the stamens and carpellary receptacle encourage allusions to the yellow of neighboring plant's foliage or flowers.  But because this yellow is restricted to the interior of the flowers, it doesn't queer the deal if neighboring plants need, instead, to be pink and proud, red and ready, or orange and original.   

Partner plants

Lotuses growing in earth-bottom ponds are aggressive.  The leaves create dense and overlapping shade above the water, and the thick tubers thickly colonize the mud beneath it.  No aquatic neighbor could compete unless it were taller than the lotus from the get-go.  And few aquatics grow higher above the water surface than the lotus's four to six feet; fewer still could muscle their way skyward through the thick lotus foliage. 

 

Papyrus is one possibility, because it can grow in water too shallow for the lotus to follow it from the deeper reachs of the pond—or even just in mud, which the lotus couldn't even hope to colonize.  But for the same reason—little or no protection from the weather above the surface of the water—papyrus isn't hardy much beyond its subtropical and tropical haunts.  The lotus, whose roots at the bottom of ponds can be a yard or two beneath even thick ice, can grow in climates with extreme winters.  North of Florida, then, free-range lotuses normally form pure colonies. 

 

Growing lotuses in submerged containers controls their spread, enabling these stunning plants to partner with all kinds of aquatics that they would otherwise quickly overpower.  Their massive and smooth-edged leaves, let alone the enormous flowers, call for partners with narrow or ferny flowers, and contrastingly tiny flowers.  Papyrus is the ultimate tall companion, although it would need to be brought into Winter shelter.  Hardy aquatics with grassy foliage include cat-tails (Typha latifolia), white rush (Scirpus tabernaemontani 'Albescens'), water iris (Iris pseudacorus), and variegated pond sedge (Carex riparia 'Variegata').  As with lotus itself, neither cat-tails nor water iris should be planted in natural ponds, especially those with outflow to streams.  All three plants are too aggressive to introduce into native habitat.

 

Water canna would be another "grassy" option, if only during warm weather.  Unlike the broad banana-leaf foliage of terrestrial cultivars, water cannas have foliage that is spear-like.  The leaves and thick stems of 'Intrigue' are grey-purple; its salmon flowers are refreshingly small, too—but then again, almost any flower is a contrast in size to a lotus's dinner-plate whoppers.

 

If you can establish a nearby colony of royal fern (Osmunda regalis), which will grow in bogs or the shallowest water but not the open ponds that lotus requires, the contrast with the lotus would be as thrilling.  A colony of royals that's firing on all cylinders can be every bit the height of the lotus.

Where to use it in your garden

Although lotus can only grow aquatically, and is large enough to command even the largest water garden, a colony that's in a planting pan can grow in surprisingly compact circumstances.  I grow "panned" lotuses in thirty-gallon galvanized trash cans, with the pan sitting right at the bottom of the can, and so can have a lotus as the focus of even the narrow pathway or vista.  And with the footprint of their "water gardens" now the absolute minimum, these lotuses can associate with terrestrial ornamentals with an intimacy that's impossible from within even the smallest pond.  My pink lotus has impossibly ferny-and-purple foliage of purple mimosa (Albizia julibrissin 'Summer Chocolate') right at hand, although it requires circumstances antithetical to those of the lotus: Perfect drainage and occasional drought. 

Culture

As for any lotus: any heavy soil, full sun, and submerged in still and fresh water that's deep enough that it's from a few inches to five feet above the top of the soil.

How to handle it

Lotuses are so spectacular (and often so easy) that it's hard to imagine that any garden would be without them.  They are (usually) so vigorous that you can even grow them as annuals, albeit expensive ones.  

 

Their tubers are banana-like in both shape and size, and grow in chains (like a giant yeast) that occasionally branch.  There's a ruff of roots where adjacent tubers join, looking more like a filtration organ of a shellfish than roots of a plant.  The tip of the lead tuber will first produce a leaf and a flower; soon it also produces the new tuber, along with that ruff of roots.  As the new tuber develops, the tip of the penultimate tuber will often grow a leaf, flower, or a second growth point that will start an additional tuber chain.  If you buy from a mail-order supplier—which is what I'd recommend; they'll have the largest assortment—you'll get just one tuber, with its older ruff of roots at the back end, and its new generation of leaf and (in season) flower bud at the other.  Like a dahlia, that one tuber can produce a full-sized and fully-blooming plant in only a few months.

 

Growing your lotus in a plastic tub that's submerged in water: Plant the tuber shallowly, on its side, in a dishpan-sized plastic tub of heavy soil.  Don't use potting soil, which is so fluffy it would just float away when you submerge the plastic tub.  Leave the tuber's growth tip exposed.  (I always think of the angle—or what I imagine the angle—of the Hindenberg blimp as it descended to its crash-landing in New Jersey.) 

 

Don't fill the tub to the top with soil; leave an inch so you can spread a layer of small gravel over the soil surface (not damaging the tuber's growth tip, mind you).  The gravel will keep the soil from washing out of the tub as you, next, submerge it a few inches deep in water.  If you need to use drinking water that's been chlorinated, let the water sit around for a couple of days first so the chlorine evaporates.   If you need to use well water, which can be chilly, indeed, let it sit around for a few hours first so it's warmed to room temperature.

 

If your garden has enough moss to spare, you can, instead, grow lotuses in pots packed with "turves" of moss.  See the "How to handle it" for the recent water lily article.

 

Regardless of the severity of the weather at the surface of the water they grow in, lotuses are hardy almost anywhere where their roots don't get hit by frost.  That said, they're at their most vigorous in warm water and warm soil.  So I think it's best not to submerge the tub right away down to its ultimate depth (which would usually be whatever it is when the tub is sitting right on the bottom of the pond).  With just an inch or two of water over the tub to start, the sunlight is stronger and warmer, which helps start the tuber into growth more quickly. 

 

Have some sort of ad hoc platform in place, then, to rest the plastic tub on while the young plant develops.  This can be as simple as a couple of bricks or a wide-mouth terra cotta pot that you rest (right-side up) on the bottom of the pond or water-garden container.  

 

After two or three of the small starter leaves have sprouted, you can lower the tub (carefully) to its "mature" depth.  Yes, the starter leaves will be "drowned"—fully submerged—but the subsequent leaves will know to grow all the way up to the surface.  Only after the young plant has a half dozen leaves lolling around on the surface, just like those of water lilies, does it then decide to grow leaves that leap up out of the water entirely before unfurling.  

 

Because lotuses are such sun- and heat-lovers (as are all water-lily-like plants), be sure to site your plant to get the maximum of both.  Not only does the sun enable the plant's leaves to photosynthesize, the sun's heat warms the water to help the overall plant (including the submerged roots) grow all the faster.  

 

With lotuses, more is more: The blue-green leaves themselves are dramatic, and, of course, the flowers are the epitome of stupefying luxury.  It isn't possible, ever, to have too many lotus flowers, but it's very often possible to have not nearly enough of them.  The only way you have a hope of getting deliriously close to having too many lotus flowers is by having all possible lotus leaves.

 

Fertilizer is the secret sauce you need.  Order fertilizer tablets from a water-gardening website and poke them down into the pot as directed (usually by the half-dozen) when you plant the tuber and monthly during the growing season.  Unless your water garden has trouble with algae, don't hesitate, in addition, to dump in a capful or two of fish-emulsion fertilizer right into the water a couple of times a week.  It would be difficult to over-feed a happy lotus, and fertilizing at least a bit is the prime way (plus full sun) to make a lotus happy in the first place.

 

Check on the water level of the container or the pond regularly, so the lotus is continually submerged during the growing season.  It's fine if the water level fluctuates a few inches, which may well happen over the course of a week if you're growing the lotus in a smaller water garden or, as I do, with the container submerged at the bottom of a galvanized 30-gallon garbage can.  But you don't want the lotus's planting tub to "breach" the surface of the water because of evaporation, let alone to actually dry out.  Lotuses have a lot of foliage, which means they're transpiring a lot of water.  Give them the water they want.

 

Don't hesitate to groom the plant during the growing season, clipping off leaves that have started to fade. The flowers, however, mature to very exciting seed pods, so you'd normally leave those to mature: they dry beautifully.

How to handle it: Another option—or two!

To grow your lotus directly in an earth-bottom pond: First, remember that full-size lotuses will totally colonize your pond unless it has portions where the water is too deep: more than six feet to be safe.  If your entire pond only has water within a lotus's depth-range, your lotus will soon fill the entire pond.  The colony will look marvelous and probably bloom beautifully, but people won't see any actual open water.  Your pond will cease to look like a pond.

 

Planting your lotus in a container isn't any help because the fast-growing roots are entirely capable of exploring outside the pot (i.e., growing out into the water itself), and then determining that there's all kinds of open mud to colonize if they just grow downward six inches, too.  My potted lotuses have already sent out runners of nearly twenty feet long since growth resumed in June.

 

Also remember that if your earth-bottom pond was constructed—i.e., excavated where there wasn't a pond before, and the excavated hole lined with heavy clay to enable it to hold water—you can't plant lotuses in its "earth" bottom.  The roots would quickly grow through that clay to the native soil beneath, causing your pond to leak and empty.  Only plant lotuses in earth-bottom ponds, then, that are naturally occurring.

 

If, after all of these caveats, you still do want to grow your lotus in an earth-bottom pond, plant it at the shallow end (which will be the warmest and the sunniest for those first leaves), and let it wander into deeper and deeper water on its own.  Be sure, though, to plant it deep enough that, even if it doesn't migrate into deeper water that first summer, any winter ice won't get so thick enough—and therefore deep enough—to freeze the tubers.

 

 

Lotuses over the Winter: As long as the roots and tubers are safe from frost, let alone the thickening ice, your lotus that's growing in a container or directly in an earth-bottom pond will rest out the cold months happily in chilly but unfrozen Winter water.

 

For containered or earth-bottomed lotus in sufficiently deep water, you don't need to do anything in the Fall but wait until Spring for them to resprout.  If you grow your lotus in a planting pan that's submerged in a comparatively small above-ground water-garden container, though, you need to remove your lotus and to store it in a frost-free spot.  Otherwise, the entire container itself will freeze solid in serious cold, killing your lotus outright.  If you have the greenhouse or interior space, you could move the entire water garden indoors for the Winter; lotuses will grow year-round when they can. 

 

If your greenhouse in Winter is cheek-by-jowl already, you'll want to store your lotuses dormant, so they don't take up valuable sunny space.  Let them experience a real frost (but not a water-garden-as-ice-cube freeze) so the foliage is killed and the plant understands that it's now time to settle down for that long winter's nap.  Then lift the plastic planting tub out of the water garden or pond, and clip off the dead leaf stems.

 

If you have room, slide the lotus, still in its planting pan and  submerged in a water garden container—I use a ten-gallon galvanized washtub from Agway—under a greenhouse bench. You can also store a lotus in a cool and completely dark basement. Every month or so, check that the tub is topped up with water; think of the water as a protective layer that protects the dormant submerged tubers from both drying out and from rotting.

 

Another option is to turn the pot gently over so the mass of soil, root, and tuber tumbles gently out.  Hose through it to expose the roots and tubers, and store those somewhat like you would dahlias: in some sort of loose "medium" (potting soil, wood shavings, vermiculite) in humidity but not actual muddy-and-dripping moisture.  The plastic planting tub is great for this: Put a layer of the medium across the bottom, then gently coil the roots and tubers atop it, then gently bury them with more medium.  Check on them regularly through the winter, sprinkling with water if they seem to be shriveling.

 

If you have the extra warm-and-sunny greenhouse space in March (but who does?), plant the tubers as you did originally, and bring them into growth in shallow water.  The galvanized washtubs come in handy here: They're big enough to hold the plastic planting tubs, and deep enough that those tubs can be submerged in those first few inches of water that young lotus plants enjoy.  And they aren't so terribly big that they hog your greenhouse.  This is often the best way to "overwinter" tubers: shorten the Winter.

Quirks and special cases

"Dividing" a lotus colony is an eccentric pleasure.  The tubers grow in lengthy chains—as if a deranged but domestically-inclined gorilla had strung bananas lengthwise into vast ropy necklaces—so you're not dividing so much as segmenting.  The newest tubers are the biggest, and unless you need more colonies, you need only separate them from the chains of older tubers to their rear.  Discard those rearward sections.  Keep the ruff of roots at the bottom of each lead tuber by cutting through the tuber to its rear.  Pot up these lead tubers as in "How to handle it" above.  One lead tuber will grow into a mature clump in a season, but it's the nature of happy lotuses that you'll still have a bounty of tubers even after discarding the old ones.  I put three "leads" in a pot instead of just one, feeling as decadent as if I'd eaten an entire pint of ice cream.

Downsides

If you can't let your lotus overwinter in a deep-enough pond (natural or man made), or keep it green and growing in a frost-free greenhouse or porch, overwintering the tubers dormant in your basement is oddly tricky.

 

Lotus aren't easily controlled in natural-pond settings; alas, there are no "clumping" lotuses to plant instead.

Variants

Even if you garden acre after acre, you're unlikely to have more than a half-dozen lotuses.  But two, three, or four?  Most definitely.  There's a pink-flowered dwarf as well as the pure-white 'Baby Doll'.  Full-sized lotuses have even more variation in flowers, from white to yellow to pink-and-yellow bicolor to pink and deep pink.  (Despite salesmanship, there isn't a truly "red" lotus—yet.)

 

The thrilling foliage always looks about the same, though, cultivar to cultivar.  So unless your collection of lotuses is in bloom, they'll all look like just more of the same lotus.  Ah, to have a lotus with variegated foliage, or foliage that's purple or chartreuse.

Availability

On-line.

Propagation

In Spring, by snipping free the lead tuber from each chain.  See "Quirks" above.  Be sure that each harvested tuber has both a ruff of old roots at the back end and a new growth tip at the front end.  If you need to make still more colonies, you'll want to harvest viable sections from the interior of the chains, not just the leads from their tips.  Be sure that each interior segment contains a growth tip of an emerging side branch.

Native habitat

There are two species of lotus.  Most named cultivars, e.g., 'Perry's Giant Sunburst', are complex hybrids of both.  Nelumbo nucifera is native to tropical Asia, but, as seen in the lotus capitals on temple columns in ancient Egypt, has been grown in tropical Africa for thousands of years.  N. lutea is native to southeast America and the Caribbean. 

 
 
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