Growing the Lovely Lotus
Lotuses crave hot weather, warm water and lots of sunshine.
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"Jewel of the garden" is a descriptive term that could apply to many lovely flowers. Until you grow a lotus. The exquisite blooms of this magnificent plant reduce jewel "wannabes" to brightly colored rhinestones.
Not every gardener who wants one can grow a lotus. Rarely will you see one in a front yard; shade gardeners stand no chance. It takes a pond, and a fairly large and deep one at that, to realize the extraordinary presence of a lotus in full bloom in your backyard.
Once those basic needs are met, lotuses are surprisingly easy to grow. Just don't let on and allow spectacular, exotic-looking flowers to suggest horticultural genius.
For plants that look so tropical, lotuses are exceptionally hardy. They can survive winters outdoors as far north as Zone 4, as long as their roots are protected from freezing solid. In southwestern Pennsylvania, USDA Zone 5b, a pond 24 to 30 inches deep ensures their return in spring after even a harsh winter.
Lotuses grow from sturdy perennial, fist-sized tubers. Don't let them loose in an earth-bottom pond, or these jewels of the garden can become a bigger headache than you might have imagined possible. (Tuberous-rooted plants are frequently tenacious. A small piece broken from the root will eventually become a full-size plant.)
Instead, plant lotus tubers in large pots or tubs without drainage holes. These containers can be lifted occasionally when the plants get crowded. Just discard surplus tubers or give them to friends — with the above warning, of course.
As with many water plants, lotuses crave hot weather, warm water and lots of sunshine. Tubers don't really kick it into high gear until the water temperature approaches 70 degrees. Buds and blooms respond best to air temperatures that remain consistently above 75 degrees for three months.
So even if the roots are hardy in your zone, blossoms may be disappointing unless you can provide lotus plants with the heat they require in summer.
Lotus experts recommend a planting mix of heavy topsoil, preferably a combination of clay and sand. Heavy feeders, lotus plants must be fertilized frequently — about every two weeks during their active growing period — to ensure maximum blooming. Special fertilizer tablets, available at water gardening centers or through pond supply catalogs, make this job easier than it sounds.
When placed at the bottom of a pond, pots should have anywhere from 6 to 18 inches of water above the surface of the soil (you can see now why a pond must be fairly deep to accommodate a lotus.). Still water is imperative as well, so if your pond has a waterfall or bubbler, place lotuses at the opposite end. The water will be calmer there.
Once they break the surface, count on lotuses growing quite differently from water lilies. Standard varieties, such as 'Mrs. Perry D. Slocum,' stretch their stems as high as 6 to 7 feet above the water's surface. Giant leaves, gorgeous and glaucous, shade the surface and muscle out competitors for several square feet. Smaller varieties, such as 'Empress' and 'Lavender Lady,' may be better suited for medium-sized backyard ponds. Most petite of all are dwarf lotuses. 'Chawan Basu' has elegant cream-colored flowers brushed with pink at the tip of each petal. Tulip lotus is pure white. Dwarf lotuses are a good choice for tub gardens.
Each exquisite flower lasts only for about three days, but, if plants are well nourished, new buds should follow in close succession. Yet faded flowers have one more surprise in store: As petals and stamens fall away, a large decorative seedpod is revealed at the center of each bloom. Let pods mature to full size, then harvest them by cutting stems below the surface of the water.
The budget gardener's trick to growing satisfying summer flowers is to do it from seed.