Lotus, the name of a genus of plants of the family leguminosce, and nearly related to the clovers. The most common species, L. corniculatus, is called in England the bird's-foot trefoil; this has a long perennial root, a decumbent stem abundantly clothed with pinnate leaves of five leaflets, and producing numerous clusters of small yellow flowers; it is a common plant in northern Europe, and in England is regarded as a valuable addition to the true grasses in pasturage. Several varieties are recognized, differing in size and habit, and there is a double variety which is grown in gardens, where it forms a dense, dark green mat, abundantly sprinkled with lively yellow blossoms. Other species furnish pasturage in the south of Europe. L. Jacobceus, from the Cape Verd islands, is sometimes met with as a greenhouse plant; it has upright stems, narrow downy leaves, and produces an abundance of blackish purple flowers. - The name lotus or lotos is used by both ancient and modern writers as applied to fruits and plants; and as these are all different from those included in the botanical genus so named, great confusion has resulted.
Homer (Od. ix. 84 et seq.) describes the Lotophagi or lotus-eaters as a people on the N. coast of Africa, who were visited by Ulysses in his wanderings, and who endeavored to detain his companions by giving them the lotus to eat. Whoever ate of this fruit wished never again to depart nor to see his native country. This poetical idea is known also to the Arabs, who call it the "fruit of destiny," which is to be eaten in paradise, and has been exquisitely wrought out by Tennyson in his poem " The Lotos-Eaters." What fruit was referred to by the ancients is not known, but numerous conjectures have been made by authors and travellers, and several widely different plants have been suggested as being the true lotus; no fewer than 11 to which the word is applied are enumerated by Fee (Flore de Virgile, Paris, 1822). Some consider that the weight of testimony rests upon the zizyphus lotus of Linnaeus, which is found indigenous in Tunis and in other parts of Africa. This seems to agree best with the account of Polybius, who describes it as a thorny shrub, which grew in that region of Africa known as Syrtica, with berries of the size of an olive, which were first white and afterward tinged with red, and which had a taste like dates.
According to Thomas Shaw ("Travels in Barbary and the Levant," London, 1738), the lotus arbor of the ancients appears to be the same plant with the onnab or jujube of the Arabs, a shrub very common in various parts of Barbary. It has the leaves, prickles, flowers, and fruit of the zizyphus or jujube, only with this difference, that the fruit here is round, smaller, and more luscious, and the branches are neither so jointed nor crooked. The fruit is still in much renute, tastes something like gingerbread, and is sold in the markets all over the southern districts of that region. Olaf Celsius had so high an opinion of it, that he described it as the dudaim (mandrake) of the Scriptures. A species of zizyphus, which grows into a large tree, with yellow, farinaceous berries of a delicious taste, was met with by Mungo Park in the interior of Africa; the berries being exposed to the sun and then pounded, the meal was made into cakes for food. (See Jujube.) Munby (Flore de l'Algerie, etc, Paris, 1847) and others consider nitraria tridentata as the true lotus tree of the ancients, a shrub found in the deserts near Tunis, producing a succulent fruit of stimulating qualities.
The sacred lotus is the nelumbium speciosum, a fine aquatic plant, sacred to Osiris and Isis, and regarded in Egyptian delineations as signifying the creation of the world. The Egpytian lotus is nymphcea lotus, and the blue lotus of the Nile is N. coerulea, which occurs also in the decorations upon the ancient Egyptian remains; and both these beautiful flowers appear also to be favorite subjects for Chinese art.