Discerning Lotus
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Chelsea Niemeyer
Posted on: June 2, 2001

I just bought a lotus and was reading in a plant encyclopedia that some lotus are edible. How do I know if mine is the edible kind? I’ve searched all over the net but it seems there are 2 different kinds of lotus plants. The one I keep coming across is more like a water lily and is used in a lot of asian/indian recipes. The one I have is more like a ground cover. The green part is sort of dusty grey/green and pine needly like lavender and the blooms are bright orange,red and yellow like a parrot’s beak. I think it’s called a "Lotus berthelotii". The tag that came with it says "Lotus maculatus, gold". It appears to be related to the acacia plant and I always thought those were poisonous. I’m not going to be tasting any until I’m positive.

Your question highlights a common difficulty with plant names: they often refer confusingly to completely different plants.

The "lotus" you are looking for is the "lotus root" or "East Indian lotus" and is known by the scientific name, Nelumbo nucifera. It is an asian vegetable that grows in wetlands in the tropics. Fresh roots are often available in produce markets in cities that have large asian populations.

The "lotus flower" is a different plant, also known as "water lily". There are several species belonging to the Nymphaea genus. This is the "lotus" that has enormous symbolic significance in eastern religion. In Buddhism, for example, it represents clean purity that arises out of swampland muck. North American species of Nymphaea are hardy and frequently provide spectacular summer vistas in our wetlands. The roots of several Nymphaea species are medicinal, making a good gargle for mouth and throat inflammations according to herbalist John Lust. It is important to know which species you have because the tuberous white lily (Nymphaea tuberosa) is poisonous.

To add to the confusion are the members of the Lotus genus. Your plant belongs to this group. They are, as you have observed, more like ground covers. One species is a very common wild plant along roads and in meadows in Ontario. These also have medicinal properties, but they are not considered important medicinal herbs. Definitely, these are not the plants you want for your recipes.

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