LOTUS QUESTIA Celestial Plant1Prologue: In the Strong Room
A human skull is carved on the column beside the entrance. As we waited for our guest that morning, a flock of schoolchildren gathered around it. One of them began poking the eye sockets of this stone memento mori. A girl in the group told him to stop, that it was gross, possibly dangerous, and certainly not allowed. He knew better. This, he informed her, was how you found treasure. He was soon disappointed. No matter how vigorously he jabbed the death's head, there was no dull click, no grinding of megalithic mechanics, no slab that slid miraculously away to reveal a long-lost tomb.What this treasure-hunter could not have known is that beneath him was a subterranean vault. Had he seen its contents, he would probably have found them just as disappointing as the unresponsive skull, but for biologists they are worth an entire unplundered Valley of the Kings. The vault is a room-sized safe, complete with bomb-proof door and combination lock. Its interior is more civilised than the mise en scène
for the usual crime caper -- softly lit, floored and shelved with polished hardwood, and atmospherically controlled. Once smelt, its odour is never forgotten, a blend of ancient vellum, beeswax polish and a potpourri of what, 250 years ago, was very nearly every known plant in the world. It is the odour of the library, archives and specimens amassed by the great Swedish botanist and father of modern biology Carl von Linné -- Linnaeus -- over a long and prolific lifetime.The strongroom's contents form the nucleus of the Linnean Society of London. Founded in 1788, ten years after Linnaeus's death, it is the oldestsociety devoted to natural history, a fact manifest in its air of antique elegance. Along with other learned societies and the Royal Academy of Arts, the Linnean occupies Burlington House, Piccadilly's Palladian palazzo. Its rooms are lofty, colonnaded and galleried, dense with portraits and busts, papers and tomes, bell jars and brass scientific instruments. It is the archetype of the academic institution of yesteryear, a place from which one could imagine a defiant Professor Challenger embarking in search of the Lost World.And yet these amber-frozen charms are deceptive. Beginning with its espousal of the work of Linnaeus himself, the society has always been the launch site of new and far-reaching departures in biology. This was where the world first heard of evolution by natural selection and where, in the following century, scientists shaped new disciplines such as ecology, heralded new techniques like DNA analysis, and predicted the new threats of mass extinction and climate change. The same innovative role is played by Linnaeus's herbarium specimens and library. They are not preserved in their underground safe like the relics of a patriarch; nor is their interest purely historical. They may have been dead for over two centuries, but in terms of their influence these pressed flowers, pinned beetles and flayed lizards are alive and active.By international agreement, the scientific naming and classification of organisms begin with Linnaeus's work in the eighteenth century. Whenever biologists reassess known species or add new ones to their number, they must consider what has gone before, whether and how these organisms have been named already and where they have been placed on the map of life. More often than not, this process of diligence starts by consulting Linnaeus who gave a vast number of plants and animals their first formally accepted names. For each name he coined, the botanist also chose a specimen to exemplify his concept. Called the type, this specimen furnished the new species' evidential basis, its single and indisputable forensic reality. This has remained the basic method of taxonomists -- biological namers, describers and classifiers -- ever since. The strongroom of the Linnean Society is a collection of types which amounts to the world's first official registry of organisms. Enshrined in its herbarium sheets are the scientific identities of many of the plants we encounter day to day. Even taxonomists who work with wholly unfamiliar species take bearings from and make discoveries in this subterranean vault, this buried capsule of life on earth.There were four of us in the strongroom -- Gina Douglas, then the LinneanSociety's Librarian and Archivist; myself; Yoko
tsuki, my companion in life and botanical adventures; and our guest Taeko Goto, newly arrived from Japan. Taeko-san had come into our lives via an exchange of emails on the subject of the sacred lotus, a plant to which she consecrated her scholarly and spiritual devotions, her talents as a gardener, and even her skills as a cook. The thrust of these messages was that she knew Linnaeus had given the lotus its first accepted botanical name in 1753. She also knew he had pressed a live plant as the type of his newly named species and that this specimen now resided in the strongroom. She had proposed flying from Tokyo with a single mission -- to see this desiccated bloom that had become the botanical standard by which all other lotuses were assessed. The least I could do was to arrange a viewing.Beneath the pavements of Piccadilly, Gina Douglas produced a vellum-wrapped bundle of herbarium sheets. Wearing white cotton gloves, we sifted through the pile until we arrived at the object of Taeko-san's quest. Gummed across the bottom of the sheet, more or less intact, was a single leaf some 15 centimetres across. Above it was a flower, a crown of petals pressed flat soon after it opened in one North European dawn some 250 years ago. To either side of this bloom, a long-stalked bud and seed head were displayed like two sceptres. Below the leaf were two words written in Linnaeus's hand. One of them, Taratti
, was a vernacular South-east Asian name for the lotus noted by the German botanist Georg Eberhard Rumphius in Herbarium Amboinense
, his Indonesian flora published posthumously in 1741. The other was Nelumbo
, the Sinhalese word for the same plant, recorded by the French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort in 1700.While perfectly legible, the botanist's ink had fared worse than the specimen. Linnaeus's lotus recalled tales of saintly sepulchres which, when opened, reveal their centuries-old incumbents in a state of miraculous preservation. Its foliage retained the blue-grey bloom of the plant in life. Although faded, the single flower held a hint of rose pink and had scarcely withered. The fruiting head rattled with seeds which, in the light of all that has happened since, I suspect might still be viable. Even more striking was the specimen's size. Until then, my own experience of the lotus was limited to the few plants I had encountered in gardens. But I knew enough to know it was a giant by nature, easily 1.5 metres tall and with leaves as much as a metre wide. By contrast, Linnaeus's plant fitted comfortably on an A3 sheet. I asked Taeko-san whether this was normal.'No,' she replied, 'it's abnormally small. It may have been underfed or confined, which would have had a dwarfing effect. Or it might be something much more exciting -- a miniature cultivar of the kind we call chawan-basu,
"tea bowl lotuses", which have long been popular in China and Japan. The answer depends on how this plant was grown and where it came from, but I don't suppose we can really hope to know either now.'Gina Douglas took a more sanguine view and pointed us in the direction of the paper trail that led to the parchment petals. In the autumn of 1735, the twenty-eight-year-old Linnaeus became curator of one of the finest private gardens ever made. It was created at De Hartekamp, the estate near Haarlem of George Clifford, an Anglo-Dutch banker, merchant and director of the Dutch East India Company. Clifford used his domination of Eastern trade routes to acquire an unprecedented range of plants, many of which were new to Western science and cultivation. His collection helped to make the Low Countries the clearing house and the powerhouse of modern botany. It also opened Linnaeus's eyes to a welter of biodiversity which he made it his life's work to render accessible. As he told his patron: 'I was astonished when I entered your hothouses, crammed with such profusion, such variety of plants as to enchant a son of the cold North, uncomprehending of the strange new world into which you had brought him.'Among Clifford's 'treasures of Asia', as Linnaeus called them, was the lotus. In Hortus Cliffortianus
, his catalogue of the De Hartekamp garden, Linnaeus styled this plant Nymphaea foliis undique integris
, 'the waterlily with completely whole leaves'. When it appeared in 1738, this phrase was both a name and a description. As early eighteenth-century botanical names went, it was not that bad: it neatly differentiated the lotus from all other waterlilies whose leaves were cleft at the base; it was also only four words long. Compare it with another lotus name Linnaeus cites, the English botanist Leonard Plukenet's mouthful from 1696 -- Nymphaea glandifera indiae paludibus gaudens, foliis umbilicatis amplis, pediculis spinosis, flore roseo-purpureo
('the marsh-loving nut-bearing Indian waterlily with large, navel-centred leaves, prickly stalks and rose-purple flowers'). This is the longest of eight scientific names, apart from Linnaeus's own invention, that were then in circulation for the same plant. The situation was a free-for-all. Any one of these labels was as good as the next. Which one prevailed was a matter of taste and who could shout loudest. This was no way to catalogue a garden, let alone run a science.Having to deal with monsters like Plukenet's name for the lotus propelledLinnaeus towards his simplest and greatest invention, binomial nomenclature. Within two decades of entering George Clifford's hothouses, he had separated the functions of naming and describing -- how, after all, did Carl Linné
describe him? He had decreed that any organism could have only one officially accepted name; that the name should be uniquely its own; and that it should consist of two essential parts -- genus and species. In the case of the lotus, he went back to his days at De Hartekamp and to the earliest mention of this plant that he had found in Clifford's library -- Nelumbo
, the Sri Lankan name set down by de Tournefort in 1700. This became the specific epithet of Linnaeus's new species, Nymphaea nelumbo
, published in 1753. It endures to this day in the currently accepted scientific binomial of the sacred lotus, Nelumbo nucifera.
But why was Linnaeus's lotus so small? The botanist's own description of its source -- Clifford's garden -- makes it clear that growing conditions were optimal. The plants were kept under glass in tanks; their boggy substrate was richly fertile. So we could exclude the possibility that the lotus was a starving dwarf which in happier circumstances would have been a giant. That left one other possibility -- it was a horticultural variety that was dwarf by design, a miniature cultivar that had travelled from the Far East along the same trade routes that made George Clifford one of Europe's richest men. Taeko-san explained that chawan-basu, the lotuses so small they could be grown in tea bowls, had been popular pot plants in her country for around a century by the time Clifford's Haarlem paradise took root. Since his plant prospectors were active in Japan, that seemed the likely source of his and Linnaeus's lotus.Having yielded a few more secrets, the specimen was wrapped again and consigned to its cupboard. We stepped from the strongroom into a different atmosphere and age. The massive door swung shut with an air-lock rush. Outside the Linnean Society, beneath the arch of Burlington House, we gathered ourselves beside the column with its stone skull. I ventured that it was a long way to have flown to see a plant that was probably Japanese.'Not at all,' said Taeko-san. 'We can't be sure it's from Japan, and I'm not in the least disappointed. It was wonderful to see Linnaeus's lotus and his handwriting, and to think of it growing here in Europe all that time ago. I must find some way to thank you.'A fortnight later, a matchbox-sized package arrived from Tokyo. Within were three seeds which resembled black acorns, wrapped in a sheet of minutelywritten instructions. Following these, I set about making a shallow nick in the outer coats of the seeds. Never before had I encountered such a diamond-hard substance in a plant. They brushed aside an entire batterie de cuisine,
finally surrendering only when fixed in a vice and attacked with a file. Next I cast them adrift in a tank filled with tepid rainwater and peaty loam. Before the murk had cleared, the seeds began to swell, although how anything so obdurate and lifeless-seeming could double in size was a mystery. Whatever it was, the force within the shell was greater than any I had brought to bear on its exterior. A strange dance ensued in which the seeds shuddered, swayed and spiralled up and down from brim to bed before settling and pushing out a shoot, a comma of brilliant emerald. After just three days they produced their first leaves -- the size and shape of an old penny, aquamarine, water-repellent and quilted with hair-fine veins. Within a fortnight the leaves had crossed the soupy surface like Lilliputian stepping stones.As spring turned to summer, the lotus seedlings demanded new homes -- three clay urns filled with water, peaty compost and rotted manure, which foul mixture they had a remarkable talent for turning clear and sweet. They prospered in a hot spot on the terrace. No longer floating but soaring, their leaves came to resemble parasols and were much the same size. Sea green and bloomy, their surfaces sent raindrops racing like mercury -- a trick I never tired of watching even when it meant getting soaked to the skin. In autumn, as the leaves faded and collapsed, I reconciled myself to that having been that: nothing so exotic would survive a winter outside in Oxford and there was certainly no room for them indoors. Then a message arrived from Taeko-san telling me that if I cut the dead leaves back, drained the water and covered the urns, all would be well.The following May, within days of my uncovering the urns and replenishing the water, the three seedlings were racing away, larger and stronger than ever. That summer, deep in the dog days, the first flowers appeared. Held on yard-high wands, the crimson buds opened in the dawn with the faintest of sounds, somewhere between a whisper and a kiss. As the sun peaked they expanded, becoming bowls of pale rose petals that brimmed with head-spinning perfume, an intoxicating blend of ylang-ylang, spices and sweet fermenting fruit. Each bloom lasted no longer than a day or two, but each was an event. No sooner had the last petals dropped than the seed pods began to develop, long-stalked spinning tops with honeycombed upper surfaces. As the season drew to a close, these reminders of the summer'srapture persisted, gauntly sculptural and still more striking than anything else in the garden.The spring after they flowered, Taeko-san was in London again and we met for dinner.'Those seeds I sent you. I'm so glad they made it. You see, they came from a very famous plant which germinated from a seed found in a dig near Tokyo.' I was about to thank her again for her gift, to attempt to convey the mesmeric effect of their shooting and blooming, when I began to wonder a little at that word dig
.'Yes,' she continued, 'the other relics found with it were carbon dated so we think we know the age of the lotus, or of the seed that it and so yours sprouted from.'I dropped my fork. 'Carbon dated
? How old is it?'She looked slightly embarrassed: 'Oh, three thousand years, give or take a few centuries.'
Inspired by the matchbox miracle, I had begun lotus-gathering even before this revelation. Yoko was pressed into translating my endless email enquiries to Taeko-san. In libraries where I was meant to be researching some aspect of garden history, perhaps an antique rose or a patrician folly, I found myself strangely drawn to shelves devoted to aquatic plants, theology and archaeology, and perplexed to find no English work on the world's most famous flower. Museums began to exert a greater pull on me than botanic gardens. In my own garden, the lotuses made me forgetful of all duties except watching and watering the three clay bowls. As autumn advanced and there was no longer anything to watch, I started assembling a biography of the lotus instead. Yoko had begun to worry that I was becoming a fanatic. Now I could offer her the news that my treasures were the offspring of a three-thousand-year-old seed as vindication of my zeal.'You're obsessed,' she said.'Yes,' I replied, 'but it's a rational obsession.'Taeko-san's gift had become the seeds of a quest. Spent among those libraries and museums, its first phase took me to Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, to times and territories that I had thought familiar until I saw them in the light of the lotus. I soon discovered that Nelumbo
soared above other plants that have been celebrated and turned into icons, the roses and lilies, orchids and tulips. This one flower had permeated the ancient world, touchedthe lives of the great, and sometimes changed the course of history. Next these explorations drew me further east -- to Mesopotamia where I encountered lotus cultures replete with mysterious goddesses, all of them long-extinct, and to India where another such culture had given rise to two major religions that were very much alive.Meanwhile, Oxford's dinner tables were growing rowdy with a debate I had thought done and dusted in that same university over a century before: Darwin versus God. In this climate, I trod cautiously at first in regions of spirituality where biologists are rarely seen. But I soon realised that any faithful portrait of the lotus would need to reconcile forces that were being described as foes -- science and religion, nature and culture. Here was an organism that was also an artefact. Beyond a very early point, its tale was our tale and natural history became human history. The lotus-derived beliefs that a sceptic might disdain were based on observation of the plant's life cycle and ecology. At the start of my quest, these at least seemed intriguing examples of pre-scientific attempts to interpret the living world. By its end, they would become illuminating lessons in how anyone might relate to that world -- even a botanist with no god in his life.Travels among texts and artefacts could only take me so far. I had questions that fieldwork alone would answer. I wanted to study the plants in habitat, to be among a living lotus culture, and to see how far into prehistory I could trace our relationship with Nelumbo
. My three seeds had come from an archaeological find that was three thousand years old. In their homeland, the lotus was still growing wild and still inextricable from society. Japan was the natural choice for the final phase of my quest. The greater part of this book describes my time there in search of the sacred flower.In the Land of the Rising Sun, the dawn plant illuminates all. What began as a botanical field trip soon turned into a transect of a nation that has flourished alongside the lotus since its very beginnings. It took me from noodle bars to battlefields and from temples to tumuli, back and forth over twelve millennia until, on a mountain far to the north, I found a flower that encapsulated an entire civilisation and spoke equally to science and spirit.THE LOTUS QUEST. Copyright © 2009 by Mark Griffiths. MARK GRIFFITHS is one of Britain’s leading plant experts. He is editor of The New Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening,
the largest work on horticulture ever published, and the author or editor of multiple other books. A Fellow of the Linnaean Society, he has written regularly for The Times
and now contributes to Country Life.
He lives in Oxford, England.