Only two living species of the Lotus family, the Nelumbonaceae, are recognized today. The Sacred Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) is widespread in Asia; both Buddha and various Hindu deities often are depicted sitting on its pink or white flowers. Associated with purity and beauty because of the contrast between its flower and the muddy source of its life, this lotus is far more than a symbol: parts of the flower are used for offerings at shrines, as decoration, and in cooking.
The North American lotus, Nelumbo lutea, produces yellow flowers rather than pink or white, but it shares large, striking leaves with its Asian counterpart. As much as two to three feet in diameter, they lie flat upon the water, or rise several feet into the air.
In truth, the leaves interest me as much as the flower. As they fade away, they bend toward the water, assuming shapes as individual as the clouds floating above them. When I discovered this one, I couldn’t help but think of Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake, and the various Arthurian legends.
Not all lotus leaves are so poetic, but as a group they are interesting. While lacking the slits that allow water lily leaves to drain, lotus leaves are covered with nanostructures coated with a hydrophobic wax, allowing water droplets that fall onto them to bead up and roll off the leaf. As they roll, the droplets pick up bits of dirt and debris, making the leaves essentially self-cleaning.
Of course, water can collect even on lotus leaves: often in ways that evoke human associations. When I found this ‘smiley face’ floating in Brazos Bend’s Elm Lake, I wished I could introduce it to the Lady of the Lake. It might have cheered her up.