In 2001, water gardening legend Walter Pagels, San Diego,
California, offered Nelumbo seed from his personal collection
to members of the IWGS email discussion list who were interested
in participating in a germination experiment. The following is
the journal/newsletter that Walter provided as the experiment
progressed. It also contains excellent descriptions of and tips
on germination of seeds and early growth of seedlings.
Germination & Seedling Growth
By Walter Pagels
Photos by Kit Knotts - Click to enlarge
Saturday, May 26, 2001
Nelumbo Seeds Offered
For the last 40 years I have been collecting seeds of the
two Nelumbo Species [N. lutea and N. nucifera].
As you probably know, Nelumbo seeds remain viable for
many years, some estimates give them up to 1000 years; however,
they sprout rapidly when put into water after the surface of
the seed has been scraped.
I now find that I have more seed than I have space for them
to grow; consequently, if there are some of you who would like
to try your hand at growing the U S native Nelumbo lutea
and/or old world N. nucifera from seed, email me your
snailmail address and I will send you some seed with instructions
on how to germinate them. You should have several floating leaves
within a month.
Thursday, May 31, 2001
Nelumbo Seed Lots Tabulated
I will shortly send out Nelumbo seeds to all the readers
who wrote me a note requesting them. The seeds are very tough,
so I am sure they will ship safely in Bubble Mailers. The first
batch will go out to addresses that are overseas from the US.
They will be sent air mail since the packages are light enough
to go economically that way. The seeds will be selected from
14 separate collections and the Lot Number will be on the package.
The reason for this is to allow record keeping for determining
the relative success of each collection of seed.
These seed had been stored dry in jars for up to 40 years,
so they are relatively fresh as far as Nelumbo seeds go.
Unfortunately, the stick-on labels are not so hardy, so many
dropped off when the stick-on paste dried. The silverfish also
made some good meals of these and others that were still attached.
Consequently, some collections are now of unknown origin. In
a couple of cases, seeds were sent to me from growers or other
collectors, so we even have some cultivars in the collections.
These are identified if known. In general, if you specifically
asked for either Nelumbo lutea or N. nucifera seeds,
I will make a special effort to send those that are positively
identified at least to the species level. In the case of Nelumbo
lutea, most of my collections were made from either Michigan
or Florida. Under the assumption that there is some difference
in hardiness in the species from these two areas, I will send
the Michigan collected seed to those in temperate climates, and
the Florida seed to the more tropical areas.
The Lot Numbers and their identification are as follows. Make
a record of this list because the mailed packages of seeds will
be identified only by Lot Number. Seeds from at least two lots
will be sent to each recipient.
1) Nelumbo lutea seeds collected from Michigan in year
2) Nelumbo lutea seeds collected from Michigan in 1985
3) Nelumbo lutea seeds collected from Florida in 1988
4) Nelumbo lutea seeds collected from Florida in 1982
5) Nelumbo cultivar seeds sent to me from Wilson Yeo of
6) Nelumbo nucifera, unknown source
7) Nelumbo nucifera, unknown source
8) Nelumbo nucifera, unknown source
9) Nelumbo nucifera, unknown source
10) Nelumbo nucifera, unknown source
11) Nelumbo nucifera, unknown source
12) Nelumbo nucifera, unknown source
13) Nelumbo sp.
14) Nelumbo nucifera cultivar, white flowers
I have already taken a sample of seeds from each lot to check
viability. I will send out newsletters periodically to indicate
the estimated viability for each lot.
In my original offering letter, I said that I would send growing
instructions with the seed; however, I will instead put the instructions
out in a letter to the IWGS List so that every one can see them.
This has an advantage because other persons who have successfully
grown Lotus from seed can now comment on the instructions and
possibly suggest alternate methods which have merit.
Wednesday, June 06, 2001
A Lotus Survival Tactic
seed of the Lotus (Nelumbo sp.) is a very hard nut and
is almost completely impermeable to water. It remains viable
for many years; some evidence indicates over two hundred years
at least. If the seed is placed into an ideal habitat for growth,
it may still remain dormant for many decades before sprouting.
It seems almost counterintuitive that being resistant to sprouting
has a survival advantage.
Researchers who have worked with the plant have theorized
on why having seeds that are so difficult to germinate is advantageous
to survival. The probable reasons for this survival tactic in
the genus Nelumbo are two fold. The first is that when
the lotus occupies an area, it spreads rapidly by vegetative
means until every suitable site is covered. If a seed sprouts
in such an environment, it will have little chance for survival
because it will be shaded out. The second reason is that the
tubers of the lotus are very nutritious. Humans also find them
good food (you can find them as a fresh or canned vegetable in
Asian food markets). If any aquatic herbivore (muskrat, beaver)
pair happens upon the growing site, it will establish a home
there and raise a family of several generations until the entire
stand is devoured. If the surviving dormant seeds then proceed
immediately to germinate, the succeeding generation would also
be eaten. Consequently, until the herbivores move out for lack
of food, it is best for the seeds to remain dormant for a while.
I had personally observed one such cycle in the waters of
western Lake Erie. During the 1930s and early 1940s I used to
visit these stands of Lotus which at that time covered hundreds
of acres. These Lotus beds were even an advertising feature of
the local towns to attract tourists. The start of the second
World War and my resultant departure from the area caused me
to cease these visits. I did not return to the marshes until
1952. Not a single Lotus could be found. When I queried the local
residents in the area about this disappearance, they said that
the Lotus were eaten by muskrats after Michigan put them under
game protection. Nevertheless, I would still periodically revisit
the areas to see if the lotus had returned. I finally gave up
my visits by the mid 1960s. Then, in 1976, I read a newspaper
article that said that sightings of Lotus in the marshes had
been reported and was given endangered status. With binoculars
in hand, I was able to make out the beginnings of a few Lotus
colonies. Passersby would ask me what birds I was looking for.
When I told them I was looking for Lotus plants, they shook their
heads and could not understand what I was talking about. The
memory of the former expanses of Lotus blossoms had been lost.
Since then, many of the former Lotus beds have returned. You
can even see them from your automobile when traveling on Interstate
75 between Toledo, Ohio and Monroe, Michigan. For a closer look,
the Michigan Nature Association has established the "American
Lotus Plant Preserve" in the Swan Creek estuary which can
be reached from I-75 by taking Exit 21.
Thursday, June 07, 2001
Nelumbo Seed News
I hear that some Nelumbo seeds have already arrived
at their destinations. It seems that everyone in the US and some
overseas destinations should get their seeds by this weekend.
So that everyone gets an equal start on sprouting the seeds,
I hope that those who get their seeds earlier will hold off starting
them until then. With this in mind, I will email my sprouting
method to everyone on Friday so that everyone can start their
sprouting on Saturday.
This should be a happy experiment. We will be testing the
success of growing Lotus from seed under a variety of conditions.
So far there are 69 participants in this experiment including
myself. Everyone should have gotten at least two different lots
of 7 seeds each (unless I messed up in packaging). If anyone
comes up short, let me know. I have kept a sampling of seeds
from each seed source so as to determine the relative viability
of each lot. I will prepare these sample seeds for germination
As this experiment progresses, send any inquiries or news
to me directly so as not to overload the IWGS mail list about
this one subject. I will periodically send a newsletter to all
Nelumbo growers via the mail list.
A few of you will be receiving your seed after the start date
because of distance or late request. Indeed, those of you down
under may want to delay starting the seed until later because
of the reversal of seasons. Whatever the reason, you will have
the benefit of learning from the trials of those who went before
Friday, June 08, 2001
Preparing Nelumbo Seeds for Germination
Nelumbo seeds are nuts which are either round and the
size of a green pea or oval and the size of a shelled peanut.
One end of the seed has a sharp point which is the remains of
the floral stigma. On the opposite end is a tiny dimple, a remnant
of where the seed was attached to the mother plant The seed color
can vary from gray to dark brown or black. The shell is very
hard and consists of two layers which are tightly bonded together.
Inside the shell are two paper thin brown colored seed coats
which enclose the twin cream colored cotyledons. This feature
is what places the Nelumbo genus into the Dicotyledon
subclass of flowering plants (Angiosperms). Between the cotyledons
is the Nelumbo embryo which consists of two prominent
inrolled leaves with attendant stem. The leaves are doubled over
against the stems because of the tight space. When the seed sprouts,
the stems elongate to push the inrolled leaves up to the water
surface. On the way up, the doubled over leaves straighten up
and unroll after they reach the surface. There they become the
round water-repellent floating leaves which are so characteristic
of the Nelumbos. There are no intermediate underwater
leaves that are typical for the waterlily family (Nymphaeaceae).
This is one of the many reasons for the recent assignment of
the Nelumbo genus into its own separate family, the Nelumbonaceae.
Click image to enlarge
The inherent characteristic of the Nelumbo seed is
to remain dormant for many years even if the environment is perfect
for them. This resistance to germination is caused by the seedcoat
which is almost impermeable to water penetration. The secret
for speeding up the germination process is to remove this protective
cover without harming the internal seed. Many methods of doing
this have been described in the literature (including soaking
in concentrated sulfuric acid for 5 hours), but the method I
use is easily available to every one. The primary tool is a pair
of pliers which has the usual pipe grip cutout at the business
end. The pliers are used to get a firm grip on the seed within
the oval pipe grip section of the pliers. The seed is very tough
and you do not have to grip the seed so hard as to crack it.
The seed is then rubbed along a rough surface to wear away part
of the seed coat. The preferred surface is a medium grit sand
paper laid flat on a table, although a concrete surface or file
can be used. The optimum grit size for the sandpaper is # 80,
although a finer grit (higher number) can also do the job. It
just takes more rubbing and the sandpaper wears out sooner. You
will then appreciate how hard the seedcoat really is.
There are two areas where the seed scouring can take place:
on the side or at the dimpled end. I prefer the side because
the progress of the rubbing (or sanding) is more uniformly determined.
When scouring the side, rub the seed in one area only. This will
produce a shiny flat surface as the rubbing proceeds. This surface
should be inspected frequently to check the process of the wearing
away process. At first, the surface is a uniform black color.
As the rubbing proceeds, a thin white line circle or oval will
appear, depending on the seed type. This indicates the breaking
through of the junction between the two fused seed coats. At
this point you can stop the rubbing. If you have missed this
point in the rubbing process (it is sometimes difficult to see),
and you continue on rubbing, you will eventually see a cream
colored area coming into view in the center. If you stop here
you will still have satisfactorily rubbed the seed. If the area
suddenly brightens into a clear cream color with a distinct edge,
it means you have broken into the cotyledon. This opens the seed
to possible fungal infection. But save the seed anyhow, it may
If you rub, file or sand the dimpled end, the sequential events
are not so clear cut as described above because the seed structure
is not as uniform. In fact, there is an irregular airspace between
the seed shell and the cotyledon and you may break into it before
the cotyledon is reached. This is an acceptable result for seed
preparation, but not consistently attainable. Those of you who
have an adventurous nature may want to attempt this route. As
a further comment, this is the seed end where the seedling emerges
from the shell.
After the above preparation, the seed is placed into a container
of water. I find clear plastic cups work out well. Place the
cups with the seeds in a warm place where the water will remain
between 70 and 90 F. Temporary movements outside this range will
do no harm; however, the cooled temperatures will delay the sprouting
and growth rate of the seedling.
The first thing you will notice after a few hours is a change
in the color of the water: it will either turn a clear tan color
or cloudy white. The cloudy color is caused by bacteria feeding
on the exudation from the seed. If the water is not replaced,
a thin scum will form on the water surface. The rapidity at which
this occurs depends upon the container size; the greater the
water volume, the less the effect. Nevertheless, the water should
be changed and container walls scrubbed to keep the environment
reasonably clean. I have not seen where slightly cloudy water
harms healthy seeds, but I haven't tested the limits. When the
water starts out with a clear tan color, it seems to suppress
the bacterial influx.
second thing you will notice is the swelling of the seed to almost
double in volume. In some cases the seed coat will exhibit irregular
bulges; this is normal. The seed coat becomes soft and has the
texture of leather. This process usually occurs within a day
or two, but for some seed it may take up to a week. This expansion
is produced by the cotyledons as they take up water. In a few
cases, the seed may float to the surface of the water.
After the swelling is completed, there will be a period of
no activity as the seed thinks about whether or not to burst
out from its shell. This can happen anywhere from one day to
several weeks. One of the purposes of this group experiment is
to gather some statistical data on the sprouting periods of various
lots of seed. When a seed does sprout, the seed coat splits longitudinally,
starting from the dimple end. The two cotyledons then separate
as if on a hinge at the pointed end of the seed. The folded-over
stem of the green embryo can then be seen between them. The folded
stem grows out of the seed shell and pulls the inrolled first
leaf after it.
Sunday, June 10, 2001
Nelumbo Growing Project has Started
I believe most of you who have received the species Lotus
seed have now prepared the seed for germination and placed them
in a container of water on Saturday. In a very short time you
should see them grow in size as they absorb water. It is then
only a matter of time until the seed embryo starts to grow. As
is characteristic with wild plants, these seeds will not all
germinate at the same time. Our domesticated flower and vegetable
seed have been conditioned over many generations to sprout on
command, so to speak. But when plants have to exist in the uncertain
world that Mother Nature provides, the wild plants need to keep
some seeds dormant in reserve in case the first sprouts face
unfavorable growing conditions.
I have also prepared a few seeds for germination from each
seed lot to allow me to compare my results with yours.
Monday, June 11, 2001
First day results of seed sowing
The day after you put the seeds in a container of water, you
should notice that your seeds have increased in size. This is
due to the intake of water which hydrates the dried cotyledons
and dormant embryo within the seed coat. In a few cases, some
of the seeds will begin to float. These seeds will sprout just
as readily as the ones that remain under water. You will also
observe a slight change in the color of the water in your seed
container, either to a light tan or a cloudy white, the intensity
being related to the amount of water in the container. The tan
color comes from the tannin in the seed, the cloudiness from
bacteria feeding on the other exudation from the seed interior.
I have never seen any harm done to healthy seeds by this, but
if the water is not changed periodically, the color or cloudiness
can become so intense as to obscure the seeds from view.
If everything goes according to schedule, some of the seeds
should begin sprouting within a few days. The minimum temperature
for this to happen is approximately 60 F. Temperatures up to
85 F speed up the process. The start of the sprouting is determined
by the gradual splitting of the seed coat starting at the dimple
end. In general, the Nelumbo lutea seed takes twice as
long to sprout as the Nelumbo nucifera seed under similar
Tuesday, June 12, 2001
Second Day Results of Nelumbo Seed Sowing
Needless to say, nothing startling has happened here on the
second day after putting the seeds in water, aside from the fact
that some of the cups of water had to be changed. However, Jim
and Sharyn Munn had started their experiment a day early (Friday)
so their effective third day report is that 5 of the 7 seeds
from Lot 7 had sprouted, and 1 seed out of 7 seeds from Lot 9
had sprouted. So the rest of you who have Nelumbo nucifera
seed should be seeing some good results today. The Nelumbo
lutea seeds should be following a few days later.
Wednesday, June 13, 2001
Third Day results of Nelumbo Seed Sowing
All seeds have now approximately doubled in size, and a few
are floating. Splits in some of the seeds in lots 6 and 7 were
found, which means that sprouting is imminent. As usual, the
water in about half of the seed cups needed to be changed. Everything
Wednesday, June 13, 2001
Raising Nelumbo Seedlings
When the Nelumbo seed sprouts, the two cotyledons separate
as if on a hinge at the dimpled end of the seed. The folded over
stem of the green embryo can then be seen between them. The folded
stem grows out of the seed shell and pulls the inrolled first
leaf after it. At this stage of growth the seedling looks like
a sharply bent fish hook with the inrolled leaves imitating the
barb. The fish hook bend in the leaf stem slowly straightens
out while the stem continues to grow until it is at least eight
to fifteen inches long. Consequently, because the stem is fairly
stiff, the leaf may be pushed out of the water if the depth is
less than eight inches. With a moderate water depth, the leaf
stem will start to bend over and push the leaf horizontally just
beneath the surface. For deeper water the stem will continue
to grow vertically until the leaf reaches the surface. At that
point, the inrolled leaf begins to grow and expand until it floats
flat on the water. The leaf diameter will be between one and
two inches. The period of time to reach this stage is about ten
days after sprouting. After the leaf has unfurled, the stem does
not readily accommodate water level changes, so if you intend
to transplant the lotus later into a pond, the new water depth
should be similar.
The seedling can be planted or potted at this stage, but since
the roots have generally not yet formed, it isn't necessary.
Nevertheless, one should keep an eye on the unplanted seedling
for root inauguration. Planting the seedling before or at the
beginning of root growth prevents subsequent root damage. The
seed contains enough food to sustain itself without extra nutrition
until after the first four floating leaves have formed, about
30 days after the seed has sprouted.
If the seedling is to be potted before being set out
into its final location, the pot should have a surface diameter
of at least eight inches. The height need not be more than about
five inches; however, anything larger is always beneficial. The
reason for this is that while the first four leaves are forming,
the Nelumbo starts developing a rhizome which needs to
run several inches before the next leaves are formed. If the
edge of the container is reached before this happens, the growth
of the plant can be distorted. If the rhizome is not deflected
to the right or left (which is often the case), the rhizome growth
will push the plant center out of the soil. If the rhizome is
deflected to the right or left, the growth will circle the container
if it is round. If square, the potential for uprooting will repeat
at every corner.
I have found that the preferred potting soil for Nelumbo
seedlings is heavy loam; however, I encourage experimenting with
different soils if you have multiple seedlings.
After the first leaf has unfurled, or a bit earlier, the second,
third and fourth leaves come to the surface in orderly sequence.
All these leaves come from a common node next to the seed. While
these leaves are coming up, the plant starts to send out the
horizontal rhizome from which the fifth and subsequent leaves
To be continued
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Profile - Walter Pagels