Common Name: Lotus, Water Lotus

Scientific Name: Nelumbo species
Family: Nelumbonaceae (the Lotus family) formerly within the Nymphaeaceae family (the Water Lily family)



The rhizome (root) of the Water Lotus is a delicious food most common in Asian cuisine.

Common Species (well actually all of them, since there are only two):

  • American or Yellow Water Lotus (Nelumbo lutea)
  • Sacred or Chinese or Indian Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera)

The Sacred Water Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera)
The American Water Lotus (Nelumbo lutea) is pictured at the top of the page.

The Water Lotus is an important food in Asian cuisine, and it has widespread religious and cultural significance through its natural range. Native Americans used their native species for food as well. In the modern Western world, it is a common decorative aquatic plant grown for its very large, fragrant flowers. With its edible roots, stems, leaves, and seeds, and with varieties that can grow to Zone 4, it is one of the most useful aquatic plants to be used in the Forest Garden.


Left: Sacred Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera)
Right: American Water Lotus (Nelumbo lutea)

The Sacred Lotus (N. nucifera) is native to the tropical regions on Asia and Australia, and the American Water Lotus (N. lutea) is native to eastern and central North and Central America. However, these species were carried about by native peoples who spread them all over their respective continents, wherever they would grow. Initially, a food source with widespread religious significance, the Water Lotus eventually became more well known (mainly in Western cultures) as an attractive decorative water plant. However, in Asia, it is still used as a common food plant.


Note the mostly circular leaves without a cleft.


  • The Water Lotus is often mistaken for the Water Lily (flowering water plants of the Nymphaeaceae family)
  • Water Lotus have circular leaves, with no clefts, and a somewhat central stem; Water Lilies typically have cleft leaves
  • The Lotus flowers can heat up and sustain a temperature of 86 F (30 C), even when the air temperature is 50 F (10 C), in order to attract pollinating insects… the increased heat benefits the insects by creating a warm environment for them
  • N. nucifera is the national flower of Egypt, India, and Vietnam

The seed head (with visible seeds in their holes) are often dried and used as an ornamental addition to flower arrangements, although the seeds are still a common food in Asia.


The original use, and still primary use in much of the world, is for the tasty roots!



Primary Uses:

  • Ornamental Plant – beautiful flowers with a sweet aroma; the dried seed head is used in floral arrangements
  • Edible Root – cooked as a vegetable; American Water Lotus (Nelumbo lutea) ususally needs to be steeped in water to remove the bitterness, but during cooking it develops good flavor, like a sweet potato. Sacred or Indian Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) has a mild, crunchy flavor, highly prized in Asian cooking… Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indian, etc.  This is the only species of Water Lotus I have eaten, and it is quite good. The roots can also be pickled. Note that the root will turn brown quickly after exposed to air, so treat them like freshly cut apples to avoid browning (lemon juice works well).

Secondary Uses:

  • Edible Stems – peeled and cooked; reportedly tastes like a beet.
  • Edible Leaves – only the young ones are recommended (before they open all the way); can be eated raw or cooked as a vegetable; traditionally the large, older leaves are used to wrap other food while cooking
  • Edible Seeds – raw or dried or cooked; often eaten like peas when fresh (young), but need to have the shell removed first; dried seeds can be popped like popcorn
  • Edible Flowers – petals are used in soups and as a garnish
  • Flour – older seeds can be dried and ground into a flour; can be added to cereal flours for bread making. The flour can be used as a thickening agent in soups, stews, and sauces.
  • Tea Plant – the dried stamens are used to make a tea

Yield: Variable.
Harvesting: Roots (tubers/Rhizomes) can be harvest year round, but reportedly best in Autumn. Young leaves can be harvested through the growing season. Flowers are harvested Summer through Autumn. Seeds and seed heads are harvested in late Summer through Autumn.
Storage: Use within a few days fresh.


Water Lotus can get large, but are still beautiful and useful, so plan accordingly.


USDA Hardiness Zone:


  • American Water Lotus (Nelumbo lutea): Zone 4-11
  • Sacred or Indian Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera): Zone 8-12 for most varieties, but there are some available growing in Zone 4 and 5.

AHS Heat Zone:

  • American Water Lotus (Nelumbo lutea): Zone 12-1
  • Sacred or Indian Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera): Zone 12-3

Chill Requirement: no reliable information is available.

Plant Type: Aquatic Plant
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Aquatic/Wetland Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: There are a number of varieties available which have been developed mainly for the ornamental flower

Pollination: Self-fertile; pollinated by insects
Flowering: Mid-Summer through Autumn

Life Span:

  • Years to Maximum Flowering: typically Water Lotuses bloom in their second summer
  • Years of Useful Life: No good information available as we typically harvest bulbs and eat them. Considering that the plants can be propagated from bulb division, an individual’s life span is likely irrelevant.

These fresh seeds are edible raw or they can be cooked like peas.

SacredLotus03 copy

The rhizomes (roots) start small and fragile.




  • American Water Lotus (Nelumbo lutea): 3-5 feet (0.9-1.6 meters) above the water line
  • Sacred or Indian Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera): 4-6 feet (1.2-1.8 meters) above the water line

Roots: Rhizomatous
Growth Rate: Fast


The roots are said to taste best in Autumn, but it is not uncommon for professional harvesters (like this gentleman in Beijing) to harvest in Winter!

Here is his story:


Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates light shade
Moisture: This is a fully aquatic species
pH: prefers a neutral to acidic soil (around 4.6), but can tolerate a wide range of water pH (up to 9.3)


Special Considerations for Growing:

  • Water Lotus can grow in waterlogged soil but usually prefers aquatic condition.
  • When planting or digging, remember that the root is fragile. If damaged, the Water Lotus will not grow the right way.
  • When planting the tuber, only embed it partially in the soil. Weigh it down to keep it from floating away. Then the roots will develop to anchor it in place and the tuber will bury itself as it desires.
  • Indian Lotus can grow in water up to 8 feet (2.5 meters) deep, and the American Water Lotus can grow in water up to 2-3 feet (60-90 cm) deep, but no shallower than 1 foot (30 cm).
  • Indian Lotus prefers water temperatures of 73-80F+ (23-27 C).
  • If in a cold climate, then shallower water is better – it will encourage earlier growth and a longer growing season as the shallower water warms up faster each Spring.
  • Indian Lotus requires a 5 month growing season and does not like humid climates.

Propagation: From seed – requires scarification of the seed (scratched with a knife or file carefully across the center, but avoid damaging the seed flesh). The seed is soaked in water, with twice daily water changes, until germination. The seedling is planted into soil and just covered with water; the depth increasing as the plant grows. Rhizomes can be divided when dormant (typically early Spring). Each segment with a growing “eye” can planted individually and will produce a new plant.

If you live in a cold location, and you grow non-cold hardy varieties, then you will need to make sure the rhizomes are planted deep enough in the mud to protect the tubers from freezing, or you need to move the rhizomes into a warmer place to overwinter . I think it makes more sense, and makes for a lot less work, to just grow varieties that are suited to your climate zone.

Some sources call these plants invasive, but most people welcome the Water Lotus to their land.