Seeing botany and world history through the eyes of the lotus flower


BOOK OF THE DAY: The Lotus Quest: In Search of the Sacred FlowerBy Mark Griffiths Chatto Windus 338 pp, £20.

RECENT YEARS have seen a series of books of popular botany devoted to just one plant type. The most successful, Anna Pavord’s The Tulip, chronicled the “tulipomania” of 17th century Europe. Jane Brown’s Tales of the Rose Tree followed. The latest in the series is Mark Griffiths’s The Lotus Questthat, with many digressions, charts the botany and the history of the lotus flower.

The receipt of three 3,000-year-old lotus seeds from a Japanese archaeological excavation triggered the author’s quest. He germinated, raised and flowered them in three clay urns in his Oxfordshire garden. The realisation that seeds three millennia old could be viable today brought him to the realisation that the lotus must be special in the world of plants.

The lotus first came to man’s attention because its rhizome (rootstock) and its seeds are edible. (They are a prized delicacy of Japanese cuisine today). Man was also impressed by the fact that such a beautiful flower might arise from the muddy slime that is its soil preference. The flower became a symbol of kingship in the ancient Middle East and of religious perfection in the ancient Far East. Just as the vine became the plant most associated with Christianity, the lotus became the plant most associated with Buddhism and Hinduism.

As a financier may see the world almost exclusively in terms of money, a botanist like Mark Griffiths may see the world almost exclusively through its plants. He sees the lotus symbol almost everywhere, in many religious rituals, in decorated pottery, even as an important component in modern literature, stretching our credulity in some instances.

Although the lotus grows in many parts of the world, it is native in Japan. He selects that country as the place to analyse man’s relationship with the plant in detail. There, on the evidence of fossils, it was already flourishing at a time long before the last Ice Age. The text that the seventh century ruler Prince Shotoku used as a vehicle for the introduction of Buddhism to Japan was the Lotus Sutra. This meant the beginning of an extraordinary proliferation in which the leaves, flowers and fruit of the lotus began to appear everywhere in paint, wood, metal and stone in both temples and secular buildings. In the following century, the development of small-scale varieties of the lotus meant that every man could have them growing in his garden, this formerly having been the prerogative of royal and aristocratic gardens with large ponds or lakes. The small varieties could be grown in pots, filled with mud and water, on small wooden verandas and balconies, even in interior alcoves. Public festivals were initiated to celebrate the annual flowering. Buddha figures in temples were sat by sculptors on carved lotus flowers, leading to the term “lotus position” for the sitting posture known in yoga classes the world over. The pervasiveness of the lotus and other cultivated plants in Japanese life leads the author to claim that Japan’s garden history is virtually synonymous with its social and political history.

The Lotus Questis also a record of a personal search. With his Japanese “companion in life”, the author explores Japanese culture and history in terms of what it means to him. A journey to the north of Honshu island affords him an introduction to the life, culture and religious beliefs of his companion’s family. The personal insight thus gained, and in particular from the chief priest of one of the country’s most sacred temples, forms the climax of the book.

Patrick Bowe’s book on the gardens of the Getty Villa, Malibu, California, is due for publication next year.