This section is from "The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste", by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams. Also available from Amazon: Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.
A few weeks since, I received from J. B. Hawkes, Esq., of Louisiana, a small package by mail, on opening which, I found a few seeds of a dark color, resembling small acorns, with the, following note:
"Understanding that yon have an aquarium, I send you a few seeds of the Nelumbium, a plant which is common here, growing in water from a few inches to ten feet in depth. The flower is large, the petals imbricated, and in color like the Chromatella Hose. It has a peculiar but very pleasant fragrance. What species of Nelumbium this is, I am not informed."
Of course. I was delighted with such a present, and from an entire stranger, too; for I had long desired to-obtain this plant, being, of all aquatics, next to the Victoria regia in size, species, and country. Of the Nelumbium, only two species are known - the speciosum and the luteum. The first is found in Egypt, China, Java, Japan, Ceylon, and generally in all the tropical regions of the east This has a splendid flower, with pink petals. The luteum, the American species, has yellow flowers, as above stated.
In hot climates, the leaves of this plant ate nearly equal to those of the Victoria regia as grown in a cold climate, but in our latitude they seldom exceed two feet in diameter, though in a hot-house they probably might be much enlarged.
This genus belongs to the natural order Nympbaeaceae, or the Pond Lily tribe, and our species resembles the well-known beautiful flower the Water Lily, only being nearly ten times as large. In the Linnaean arrangement, this genus belongs to class Polyandria and order Polygenic The- most northern limit of its growth in New England appears to be the town of Lyme, Conn., where there are several localities of it, not far from Connecticut river; but why that ancient, aristocratic town, should be honored with the growth of this magnificent species, when it does not exist at any other place within hundreds of miles, is a mysterious but not a singular botanical fact. The common name of the Nelumbium, among eastern nations, is the Sacred Bean - supposed to be the same as the Egyptian Bean of Pythagorus, and the Lotus of the ancient Egyptians. It is said to have grown in abundance on the banks of the Nile in the days of Alexander, but is said at present to be rare in that country. It was held sacred by the Egyptians, probably because it was employed as food in times of famine. The Romans, we are told, sent to Egypt expressly to obtain the seeds of this plant, but with what success does not appear.
The traveler Thunberg says that the Nelumbium is considered a sacred plant among the Japanese, and that their idols are often represented sitting on one of its great leaves.
It grows in abundance in the ponds and marshes of China, and in most parts of India, where it is highly esteemed as a luxurious condiment, and sometimes as an article of diet Sir George Staunton, in his embassy to China, says that the seeds of the Nelumbium, as well as the roots and stems, are used as food among the high mandarins, the first being made into a kind of paste, and the other parts cut into thin slices, are served up with ice, and some peculiar condiments, making one of the courses highly esteemed at the meals of that luxurious people.
In England, Loudon says that the Nelumbium speciosum has not been very successfully cultivated. The attempt has been made by means of large pots with rich mold at the bottom, filled with water; and by planting the seeds in the tank of a hot-house. In both cases he says that it requires a strong and constant stove-heat to make it flower to perfection. It must be remembered, however, that Loudon has reference to the speciosum, which is exclusively, or generally, found within the tropics; whereas, our Nelumbium is found as high north as latitude 42°, and hence may be cultivated without any artificial heat.
The Nelumbium may be propagated by dividing the rhizoma, or prostrate trunk; but the better way is to plant the seeds, first cutting through the hard portion of the capsule, to admit the moisture. Mr. Kent (Sort, Trans.) says that the seeds of this plant have been known to vegetate after having been kept for forty years, and that it flowers the first year. That it will grow when forty years old, is not incredible, when it is known that grains of wheat found in Egyptian mummy cases, supposed to be three thousand years old, have been known to vegetate freely; and that the Nelumbium will produce flowers the first year, is not singular, when it is known that the Victoria regia flowers in five months, though a much larger plant.
The seed of the Nelumbium luteum resembles in size, color, and form, a small acorn. This is to any inquirer a curiosity, and to the scientific botanist an anomaly. When opened carefully, so as not to destroy the parts, it will be found to contain, in a hollow sack, a complete embryo of the future plant - the root, stem, leaf and seed vessel, all being conspicuous. The annexed cut, one-third larger than the natural size, presents the form and appearance of this sack and plant, only that the embryo is deep green. This color is itself a striking peculiarity, being, it is believed, the only known instance where the green color has been assumed without the aid of light.
To the vegetable physiologist, the seeds of this genus have long been a puzzle, so that the most learned botanical doctors have not been able, without controversy, to decide where it belongs, either in the natural or artificial classification. Indeed, for the last half century botanical philosophers have been disputing about this plant, and scores of pages, with illustrations, have been written to prove on the one side that this genus is monocotyledonous - that is, having but one cotyledon, or seed-lobe, like Indian corn and the Palms; and on the other, with equal force, it has been contended that this genus is dicotyledonous - having two cotyledons, like the Bean, Acorn, and Chestnut With the view of forming an experimental opinion on this vexed, question, I placed some seeds of the Nelumbium in water, kept tepid for several days, first dividing the hard crust of the capsule, so as to admit the fluid to the second coat In two or three days the seed separated into two parts, through what appeared, when magnified, to be the natural fissure, thus forming two seed-lobes of a dicotyledonous capsule.
This fact, with the reticulated structure of the leaf leaves no doubt that this is an exogenous plant.