Nelumbo is a genus of aquatic plants with large, showy, flowers commonly known as sacred lotus. There are two species in the genus, the better known of which is the well known national flower of India.
Hindus associate the lotus blossom with creation mythology and with the gods Vishnu, Brahma, and the goddesses Lakshmi and Sarasvati. From ancient times the lotus has been a divine symbol in Hindu tradition. It is often used as an example of supreme beauty. Its unfolding petals suggest the expansion of the soul. The growth of its pure beauty from the mud of its origin holds a benign spiritual promise. Particularly Brahma and Lakshmi, the divinities of potency and wealth, have the lotus symbol associated with them. In Hindu iconography, deities are often depicted with lotus flowers as their thrones.
The lotus plant is cited extensively within Puranic and Vedic literature. In the Bhagavad Gita it is said that one who performs his duty without attachment, surrendering the results unto the Supreme Lord, is unaffected by sinful action, as the lotus leaf is untouched by water.
Borrowing from Hinduism, in Buddhist symbolism the lotus represents purity of body, speech, and mind, as if floating above the muddy waters of attachment and desire. The Buddha is often depicted sitting on a giant lotus leaf or blossom. According to legend, he was born with the ability to walk and everywhere he stepped, lotus flowers bloomed.
The flowers, seeds, young leaves, and rhizomes are all edible. In Asia, the petals are used sometimes for garnish, while the large leaves are used as a wrap for food. However, in Korea, those can be made as a tea with dried petals of white lotus. The rhizomes are used as a vegetable in soups, stir-fried and braised dishes. Petals, leaves, and rhizome can also be eaten raw, but there is a risk of parasite transmission, therefore it is recommended that they be cooked before eating.
The lotus seeds or nuts are quite versatile, and can be dried and popped like popcorn. They can also be boiled until soft and made into a paste. Combined with sugar, lotus seed paste becomes one of the most common ingredient used in pastries such as mooncakes, daifuku, and rice flour pudding. Lotus seeds called Phool Mukhana are also used in Indian cooking.
Various parts of the Sacred Lotus are also used in traditional Asian herbal medicine. The traditional Sacred Lotus contains the alkaloid aporphine, which is used to treat Parkinson’s disease, erectile dysfunction and sexual arousal disorder.
Researchers report that the lotus has a remarkable ability to regulate the temperature of its flowers to within a narrow range just as humans and other warmblooded animals do. Physiologists at the University of Adelaide in Australia found that lotus flowers blooming in their gardens maintained a temperature of 86 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit, even when the air temperature dropped to 50 degrees. They suspect the flowers may be turning up the heat for the benefit of their coldblooded insect pollinators.