There are more than 100 different species of the lotus plant, although some species are more familiar than others because of their prominent national, cultural and religious associations. In North America alone, there are more than 20 lotus species, including Nelumbo pentapetala, which exhibits yellow blooms. Mystical depictions of lotus flowers portray red and purple flowers.
The lotus plant (Nelumbo nucifera) is a member of the Nelumbonaceae family. The wide variety of common names connected with the lotus reflects how it exists today in many countries all over the world. Its names include sacred lotus, Indian lotus, Chinese water lily and Egyptian bean. In Hindi it is kanwal or kamal. In Sanskrit it is padma (pink lotus), kamala (red lotus), pundarika (white lotus) and utpala (blue lotus).
The Middle East, Asia, Africa, Australia and New Guinea are among the places where the lotus plant is indigenous. It is a water plant and thrives in ponds, lagoons and marshes. Lotus flower petals are most commonly pink or white and profuse.
The lotus is sacred in the Buddhist and Hindu faiths, symbolizing purity and enlightenment. Portrayals of Hindu gods traditionally show them holding or seated on a lotus flower. Examples are Vishnu, the supreme god and Padma or Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. The same is true for depictions of Buddha. The lotus flower is also a central decorative motif in religious ornamentation.
The ancient Egyptians also revered the lotus, which was a symbol of rebirth. This belief grew from the lotus flower cycle of opening at dawn and closing at dusk, its roots anchored securely in the mud below.
In Egypt, the lotus was central to religious offerings and worship, and to art. Interestingly, the lotus flower was a symbol for numbers. In antiquity, one lotus flower stood for the number 1,000, two lotuses represented 2,000 and so on in the system of numbering.
Lotuses are water lilies by classification, as in the night-blooming Egyptian white lotus (Nymphaea lotus) and the day-blooming blue lotus or blue water lily (Nymphaea caerulea).
Many parts of the white lotus plant have medicinal or dietary uses. For example, the rhizomes counter diarrhea, the leaves treat infections and the seeds flavor sauces and condiments.
The 1922 excavation of the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamen revealed blue lotus petals strewn over him. Open to debate is whether they were purely symbolic, or presented a case for the hallucinatory or medicinal effects of the blue lotus or its use as an aphrodisiac. Today, health supplements are among the products made possible by the blue lotus.