Bloom of Ages: The Lotuses of BabylonstorenDecember 20th, 2021
They’re admired the world over for their transcendent beauty … delicate flower crowns that appear to float on water and exist only for a handful of days. However, the reverence for lotus flowers throughout the ages stems from a deeper beauty, one that lies beneath the surface.
The lotus is an aquatic herbaceous perennial with a life cycle different to any other plant. It thrives in the mud and from there, produces enchanting blooms. During their short, two-day lifespan, the buds close every night and reopen the next day, pure and untouched. Their unlikely brilliance in oft muddy water is thanks to what’s been coined “the lotus effect” – self-cleaning microscopic nodules on the surface of the leaves cause droplets and dirt to simply roll off.
In many cultures, this physical renewal of the plant is likened to spiritual enlightenment. The ancient Egyptians regarded the iconic blue lotus of the Nile River as a representation of the universe. In Hindu culture, it is said that gods and goddesses sat on lotus thrones.
A lesser known – but significant – aspect of the lotus plant’s allure to civilisations throughout history is that they’re entirely edible. Apart from being beautiful to look at, they’ve also sustained their admirers with unfaltering zeal.
Even in cooking, the plant maintains its ethereal qualities. When cut diagonally, lotus rhizomes reveal a delicate flower-like pattern formed by the tiny inner tubes that keep the plant buoyant. The rhizomes become deliciously crisp when deep-fried (the texture resembles potato crisps!), and make for tasty morsels in stir-fries. They’re nutritious too; full of minerals and nutrients like vitamin C and potassium.
When uncooked, lotus stems can double as a clever straw for drinking, or a snorkel for staying alive! Fables from the Far East recount how sharp-witted warriors outsmarted their enemies by breathing through lotus stems while hiding underwater, attacking once rivals were within arm’s reach! The plant’s massive leaves helped to disguise the clever combatants.
The leaves, too, can be used in cooking to wrap and steam dishes like fish or sticky rice. At Babylonstoren, lotus leaves are used as natural serving platters. They also double as impromptu umbrellas during many a garden tour, providing shelter from the ruthless South African sun.
The flowers of the lotus plant taste as delicate as they look, and are the rarest part of the entire plant. They flower once a year in high summer and only then can the fresh blooms be used for lotus flower tea. The tea is said to symbolise the blossoming of enlightenment – a fitting description considering how the fresh flower opens and releases its perfume when steeped in a bowl of hot water. It tastes of vanilla and fragrant jasmine, and can sometimes leave a slightly bitter aftertaste. An apt metaphor for all fleeting moments, perhaps?
Lotus seeds, again, can be dried and popped like popcorn! The small black seeds resemble peppercorns and transform into airy white puffs when heated high enough. It’s a common snack in many Indian and African countries. The dainty seeds are perhaps the most beguiling part of the plant. Of all the lotus’s regenerative traits, the seeds’ lust for life cannot be suppressed; some have stayed dormant for centuries before springing to life again without much fuss.
Beautiful as it may be in bloom, the lotus’s virility isn’t restricted to summer. Its true beauty is that it reinvents itself in every season, every year, every epoch.
See them in bloom in late December at the bridge at the end of the main road of the Babylonstoren garden. As they once flourished and nourished and inspired in the ancient lotus gardens of Babylon, so they still do here at Babylonstoren, on the foothills of the Simonsberg Mountains.