Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Sacred-lotus? HELP!

How could I live in South-East Asia without mentioning anything about Lotus?
The Lotus flower is one of the most popular flowers in South-East Asia, it is the national plant of India and Vietnam, and is also deeply related with the Thai culture – it is present in art, traditions, food but most important of all, in their religion. These flowers have a great symbolic value for the Buddhists as it is present in Buddha’s life in many episodes. The first episode is even before his birth, when Queen Maha Maya had a dream of a white elephant holding a white a lotus flower in its trunk and walked around her three times. This dream was the prophecy of the birth of Buddha. Another famous episode tells that when Buddha was born he did seven steps and at each step a lotus flower appeared on the ground. Also Buddha is many times represented sitting on a lotus blossom while reaching the enlightenment as lotus blossoms symbolize full enlightenment.

Lotuses have a handful of meanings in Buddhism and the different meanings depend on the colour of the flowers (white, red, blue, pink, purple and gold) but also on the developmental stage (closed lotus, growing lotus and blooming lotus). Among the many different meanings, lotuses usually come associated with purity and divine birth, especially the white lotus.
I could dedicate an entire post explaining the importance and the different meanings of sacred-lotuses in both Buddhism and Hinduism, but that is not my aim. Lotuses have their own story to tell…
For many years the true taxonomical identity of lotus was hidden, I mean they are not what they appeared to be and their looks fooled botanists for long time. Only on late 80’s – early 90’s with the new molecular techniques botanists found out the scandalous truth: lotuses are not related to water lilies! Water lilies belong to the Nymphaeaceae (Nymphaeales order), a basal angiosperm family; lotuses belong to the Nelumbonaceae (Proteales order) which is not only a different family, but also placed in a much derived group. In conclusion: lotuses (Nelumbo) are today considered to be more closely related with sycamores (Platanus) rather than water-lilies (Nymphaea), as they are placed in the same order (Proteales).

It is not surprising that experts were deceived by the lotuses morphology. Characters as massive flowers, indefinite number of petals in a spiral position and ascidiate carpels are usually associated with basal angiosperms. This added with the adaptations to the aquatic environment shared by both groups made botanists conclude that they were very closely related. Not the case at all! All these similarities were not evidence of a shared evolutionary history, but of a convergent evolution.

Nelumbo or Sacred-lotus (left) vs. Nymphaea or Water-lilly (right)

 But there is no need to despair – after this post there are no more reasons to mistake a lotus flower with a water-lily. The most conspicuous difference between these two is the carpel, which in Nelumbo is an expanded receptacle that contains the seeds when mature. There are also marked differences in the stamens, which are laminar, or in other words leaf-like in Nymphaea (another common character of basal angiosperms). In Nelumbo the stamens form a ring at the base and are filamentous. Finally, it should also be mentioned that even though they are both aquatic, Nymphaea always has floating leaves and in Nelumbo they are above the water, as well as the flowers.

Different floral stages of Nelumbo nucifera (Sacred-lotus)

 But although the taxonomy is solved, the confusion is still reigning amongst common mortals and water-lilies are still called lotuses by many people (including Buddhists). So let’s see Nelumbo nucifera is the well known “sacred-lotus” and has pink petals, however in Buddhism the different colours of the lotus are associated with different meanings. The other two species of lotus (N. lutea and N. pentapetala) are endemic to the American continent, so they can’t be related with Buddhist traditions. This means that the only lotus that can be associated with Buddhism is pink! So where do the other colours come from? Nymphaea of course! The number of species of Nymphaea is much superior and the colours of the flowers are also very variable.

Colour diversity in Nymphaea

 Confused? Yeap me too, so I will leave you with this: Are the different colours associated with water-lilies instead of the sacred-lotus? Or are the colours symbolic variations of the sacred-lotus?
Hopping that some of you have a clue that helps to clarify this!

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