AU Lotus Project

Ken Tilt, Professor,
Auburn University Horticulture Department
January 2010

The Auburn University Lotus Project has been steadily gaining momentum since our first visit to the Center of Research and Production in Wuhan, China, in 1998. We have been intensively examining the potential of Nelumbo nucifera (Sacred lotus) and Nelumbo lutea (American lotus) as alternative crops for the Black Belt region of Alabama and throughout the Southeast.

Lotus is a highly desirable edible plant with additional diverse uses as an ornamental and medicinal crop. Unfortunately lotus receives little attention in the United States. Initially supported by ACES and AAES seed grants, the Auburn University Lotus Project has evolved into a multidisciplinary, international collaborative program creating a multifaceted research, teaching and extension model to evaluate, demonstrate, and promote the potential of putting one of the oldest and most cherished plants in the world into mainstream markets in the United States. A highly anticipated outcome will be providing employment and economic opportunities to the chronically destitute region of the Black Belt of Alabama.

Our initial work involved the collection and evaluation of lotus cultivars as well as a collection of scientific literature from around the world. We investigated the ornamental value of lotus and how to prepare a crop. Lotus can be forced to grow and bloom for early spring sales by putting the plants in the greenhouse and simulating long days of summer by providing heat to the roots. In 60-90 days they are ready for planting in ornamental containers on a patio or can be planted into garden ponds. This work was successful and a new Alabama nursery, Ten Mile Creek Nursery, was launched to supply plants for the mass retail market. Eventually this program may cultivate international export opportunities but the current basic target is to find an inexpensive, low maintenance, sustainable crop that will allow small businesses to supplement their income or provide minimum support until the industry can build and grow larger markets. The next challenge was to use our acquired knowledge from other countries to develop production techniques that will allow our farmers and nursery producers to efficiently grow and market this wonderful plant. Most of the world uses labor intensive cultural practices that are not feasible in the United States.

Researchers are now evaluating lotus as part of a fine dining experience. For centuries Asians (and others) have enjoyed and used lotus flowers in floral arrangements and as part of religious celebrations but its rapid growth as a food crop helped perpetuate this plant as their number one aquatic edible plant. It is significant that all parts of lotus are edible and the roots or underground stems and seeds are loved by millions of people and are part of their regular daily diet. In order to determine the nutritional value of the plants growing under our conditions, Dr. Floyd Woods and his students are taking the lead on the studies of the nutritional composition and postharvest quality of the edible parts. Economists are determining the production economics and the market desirability of lotus to the American pallet. Dr. Deacue Fields and his graduate students are helping growers evaluate the crop's true potential. CJ McGrath is examining the organic production of lotus to target a niche market which would give low cost access to potential new farmers.

Alternative uses for the plant are progressing under the leadership of Warner Orozco-Obando. He is evaluating the potential of using lotus in constructed wetlands to remove organic compounds from nursery runoff, for phyto-remediation of fish waste, using the plant as an alternative feedstock for ethanol production, and forcing lotus for spring sales using low tech greenhouses. Work in these areas have shown the practical benefits of utilizing the special filtering capabilities of lotus in concert with intense fish farm operations, thereby increasing stocking potential and profits while growing a marketable crop.

Lotus plants were distributed to Huntsville, Birmingham, Mobile, AL, and the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, GA, so the public can enjoy the beauty of these plants and consider the many applications for the home garden. It is certainly time to incorporate this incredibly unique, colorful, and beautiful new/old plant into American gardens.

Another important goal is to evaluate the unique benefits and potential of our native lotus, Nelumbo lutea. The Asian lotus has several thousand years' head start. Can our native lotus provide equal or better qualities or can breeding the two species offer a synergistic product for our farmers and consumers?

A significant part of the rest of the world has formed a close and enduring relationship with this plant, enjoying its ornamental value, its medicinal efficacy, and its value as a religious symbol. The Auburn University Lotus Team and Auburn University Horticulture want to introduce our own native and the Asian version of this plant to the American gardening world so it can enjoy what the rest of the world has embraced for centuries.

Please consult the table below for links to a variety of informational pages. Our THUMBNAIL PAGE is a good way to view a variety of lotus in one place with easy links to individual informational pages.

C.J. McGrath attended an Aquaponics workshop in the fall of 2010. Here are her notes from the workshop.

Click here to read C.J. McGrath's dissertation.

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Diary of a Lotus Farmer
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