Love of lotus leads to presentation in China

By on August 25, 2014
Larry Nau of Bergen Water Gardens & Nursery and his son, Nathan, pose with blooming lotus plants outside the nursery in Churchville. Nathan is a college student and helps out when he can. K. Gabalski photo.

Larry Nau of Bergen Water Gardens & Nursery and his son, Nathan, pose with blooming lotus plants outside the nursery in Churchville. Nathan is a college student and helps out when he can. K. Gabalski photo.

It’s August and the lotus at Bergen Water Gardens and Nursery are in full bloom.

Owner Larry Nau is captivated by the flower which is rich in symbolism. The elegant blooms stand straight above the aquatic plants which are found in pond gardens and containers at the nursery. Colors range from pink to red to creamy white and yellow.

“People think its tropical and can’t be grown here,” Larry says of the exotic lotus, “when it’s the complete opposite.”

The lotus, in fact, are winter hardy.    Larry pours water over the wide, deep green leaves and the water beads up like mercury and rolls off. Some plants which have already bloomed, flaunt stunning seed pods which are coveted by florists for  arrangements.

“It’s a really neat plant,” Larry observes, “it has a lot of versatility.”

Larry’s love of aquatic plants and lotus led him recently to China for the 28th National Lotus Exhibition by the China Flower Association held in Tieling, China in July. The Lotus Association is one branch of the China Flower Association.

He was the first American to address the group in its history. “I have wanted to attend the lotus meeting for several years and planned on going this year,” he says. “Once their president, Mr. Chen Longquing, learned I was attending, and he knew I was 100 percent American, he asked me to speak.”

“They have had speakers from Thailand, Japan, Russia, but never the USA,” Larry continues. “The title of my presentation was: ‘American Lotus: Past, Present and Future.’ Lotus is perhaps the most significant plant in Chinese culture, so this group is very important within the Chinese Academy of Sciences.”

Larry says he began his presentation with the native American lotus Nelumbo lutea and then discussed the various hybrids created by Perry Slocum (originally from Binghamton) in the 1980s and ‘90s.

“Next, I introduced a few new hybrids here in the USA and what is currently  happening with waterlily hybridization to give ideas about future lotus hybridization,” Larry says.

“More importantly,” he continues, “my style of presenting was also radical … I  stood and spoke … I did not sit and read a text!”

A lotus seed pod forming on one of the plants. K. Gabalski photo.

A lotus seed pod forming on one of the plants. K. Gabalski photo.

Larry is a horticultural ambassador of sorts. He says he has utilized the art of networking to develop a relationship with the Chinese over several years, having traveled there for each of the last five years.

“Many of the important people know me and what I have done,” Larry says.

“In 2010, I was the executive director of the International Waterlily and Water Gardening Society,” he says. “I organized the international meeting in Qingdao, China in 2011, so I went to meet everyone and vet the venues and plans – this was through my friend, Prof. Huang Ghozhen in Qingdao and Chinese Waterlily World.”

At the meeting in 2011, Larry says 55 people from around the world took part including attendees from the USA, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Korea, UK, Belgium, and India as well as 150 Chinese from across their country.

“I met many people from various gardens: Beijing Botanical Gardens, South China Botanical Gardens, Lotus Mountain in Guangzhou, Chenshan Botanical Garden in Shanghai, to name a few. In 2012, we had a meeting at the International Waterlily Collection in San Angelo, TX, fourteen Chinese attended this meeting.”

The meeting Larry organized in Qing-dao in 2011 was important for the Chinese, he says, and opened up the door for the 2014 International Horticulture Expo in Qingdao.

His July 2014 trip, “introduced me to Prof. Wang and his wife, Mrs. Zhang. They are founders of the Lotus Branch and I have never met them before,” Larry says. “They are both in their 80’s. They knew of me (and) heard about my interaction with various people. It was an interesting start to our new friendship.”

In the past, Larry explains, a few Americans have been invited to attend the lotus meeting (2005 & 2010) but no one presented. “This year, there were two speakers from Russia, one from Thailand and myself plus about twelve Chinese speakers.”

Lutea ‘Yellow Bird.’ Provided photo.

Lutea ‘Yellow Bird.’ Provided photo.

“The lotus is so important in Chinese history, religion, and as a source of food – seeds … flowers … tubers,” Larry says.

The lotus is a symbol of cultivation and purity in Chinese culture and is held in high regard in Eastern religions and spiritual practices. The flower emerges from the dark, muddy bottom of ponds and then blossoms above the water, untainted by the mud from which it grows.

Larry says there are many wetland areas in China and the population is dependent on food crops like rice and lotus that grow well in wet conditions.

“It’s tasty,” Larry says of lotus. He says the Chinese enjoy pickled lotus, wraps made with lotus leaves, even lotus toffee candy made with lotus seeds. Tea is also made from the plant.

His own interest in plants is a life-long one, Larry says, and his expertise in aquatic plants and animals began 45 years ago with aquariums and tropical fish.

Larry is a graduate of Churchville-Chili and his family lives in Churchville. He says he typically hires students from Churchville-Chili and Gates for summer  help at the Water Gardens and Nursery.

The lotus plants available at the nursery are hardy and survive well in western New York, Larry says. The native species ranges up into Canada.

“I’ve never found it (American lotus Nelumbo lutea) naturally in New York,” he says, but it can be found growing naturally in other northeastern states.

Because of its aggressive, almost invasive nature, Larry recommends growing lotus only in containers – whether they are placed on decks, patios, in the garden or in a pond. Prices are in the $40 – $50 range.

For over-wintering, the plants can be dropped to the bottom of ponds, or kept in a garage or greenhouse.

Bergen Water Gardens is located at 7443 Buffalo Road, between Churchville and Bergen and is open seasonally from April though mid December. Current hours are Thursday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Larry offers a wide range of aquatic plants, Koi fish, as well as pond and Koi equipment and supplies. Many marginal plants for surrounding ponds, including conifers, are also available.

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