AUBURN – An Auburn University research and outreach project is moving from the laboratory into the mainstream market this month and for the first time ever, gardeners in parts of the United States will have the opportunity to buy spectacular lotus already in bloom.
Lotus, ancient aquatic perennial plants that are native to China, have been used for centuries throughout the world as food, medicine and ornamentals. Since 2001, AU horticulture professor Ken Tilt and a team of scientists from Auburn, Georgia, Mississippi and China have been exploring the possibility of growing lotus in the Southeast, particularly in Alabama’s Black Belt region, as a potential double-cropping option for west Alabama fish farmers.
“The environmental conditions to grow lotus are the same as those to produce fish in ponds,” Tilt said. “Lotus production in association with aquaculture farms has the potential to increase the economic revenue from fish ponds, diversify farm production and make fish farm operation more economically sustainable.”
In this springtime debut, only 4,500 of these early-flowering lotus will be available for sale at garden centers in select regions of the country. They have been gently nudged into bloom weeks ahead of their natural time by Bill Bancroft and his crew at Ten Mile Creek Nursery in Hartford, Ala.
Bancroft, an AU horticulture alumnus who worked on the then-new lotus project his final year at Auburn, received crate loads of dormant lotus tubers from China in early February and immediately planted them in the four greenhouses he built specifically for the lotus venture. Using data from almost a decade of Auburn research into lotus as an alternative crop for Alabama farmers, Bancroft manipulated greenhouse temperatures and lighting conditions to simulate the long days of summer and fool the plants into blooming early.
“From mid-March through April is the time when garden-center shoppers want to take home flowering plants,” said Tilt. “But in the past, the only way they’ve ever been able to purchase lotus at that time of year has been in tuber form. This will mark the first ‘forced’ lotus for spring garden sales in the mass markets in the United States.”
Bancroft won’t be selling any of these plants directly to the public. All will be marketed and distributed by Moerings-USA, a Stevensburg, Va.-based wholesale nursery operation that specializes in sales and marketing of aquatic plants.
“We’re excited to be adding lotus to our list of products available for retail outlets during their peak sales seasons,” Moerings-USA owner and president Oscar Warmerdam said.
Bancroft recently shipped the first round of Alabama-grown lotus to Moerings for sale in retail outlets. Tilt said all of this first crop of lotus is destined for markets in northern states.
“At least in this first year, they won’t come as far south as Alabama,” Tilt said.
Warmerdam learned of the Alabama lotus work through a presentation that AU lotus team member and horticulture doctoral candidate Warner Orozco-Obando gave at a conference in Thailand last year and immediately began working with the AU lotus team to get the plants to the public.
“We approached Ten Mile Creek Nursery about producing the lotus because Bancroft was familiar with the lotus research and because the Bancrofts also are catfish and tilapia producers, which will give us the opportunity to evaluate the feasibility of double-cropping,” Tilt said.
The lotus greenhouses at Ten Mile Creek Nursery are equipped with sensors and monitors to record data that the Auburn scientists will use to identify the best cultivars for Alabama’s growing conditions and to increase production efficiency. Bancroft has also agreed to keep detailed time and financial records so that agricultural economists at AU can fully analyze the economics of lotus production.
Tilt and others launched the AU lotus study after a visit to China’s chief research center for lotus production convinced them that the ancient aquatic perennial, deemed by some religions to be “God’s favorite flower,” might have growing potential in Alabama. In research based at Auburn and at Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station research and extension centers in Cullman and Mobile, Tilt and his team have evaluated more than 100 small “teacup” lotus cultivars and several large cultivars for potential production in Alabama. Focusing on the top performers in that research, and on the cultivars Alabama’s Master Gardeners have voted “best of the best” to market, the team has developed best management and production practices for lotus.
On the outreach front, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System has been working to educate the gardening public about the care and use of lotus. Plants from the AU lotus collection will be on display from late May through September at the Mobile, Huntsville and Birmingham botanical gardens and in Atlanta and Savannah, Ga.
While the researchers and the marketers wait to gauge consumer response to this first offering of Alabama lotus, they continue to investigate other uses for the plants. Given that all parts of the lotus are edible, from its seed pods to its roots, and are staple food items in many cultures, some of the AU scientists are attempting to gauge Americans’ willingness to add lotus to their diets. Others are investigating the use of lotus as biofilters for pesticides and fish waste in wetland areas and their potential as a source of biomass for energy production, all of which will expand the market for Alabama lotus.