Last time, we talked about one of two astonishing botanical references in the book “Crazy Rich Asians.” The first was Epiphyllum oxypetalum, also known as Dutchman’s pipe cactus or the orchid cactus.
The second was a piece of women’s clothing made out of lotus fibers. Certainly there are numerous expensive and exotic fibers, and I have written about spider-silk fabrics and sea silk, the fibers of which are derived from the mollusk Pinna nobilis. However, fabric from a water lily? Yes, fabric from a water lily!
Lotus fabric is, indeed, rare, produced only by floating communities on Inle Lake in central Myanmar. These craftsmen have only pursued this craft for the last century when a local woman, Daw Sa Oo — inspired by religious connotations of the lotus — experimented to create a fine fabric as an offering for a Buddhist abbot.
Many flowers have drawn oohs and ahhs from the public, but water lilies always attract a crowd at public gardens. Once again, there is a society devoted to these plants — the International Waterlily & Water Gardening Society. Although water lilies are commonly referred to as lotuses, there actually is a separate plant genus named lotus, which is a terrestrial group with small flowers that is a member of the pea or legume family (Fabaceae). The name lotus is a Latinized form of the Greek lotos.
Having been intrigued for years by ancient Egyptian history, I am familiar with lotus flowers pictured constantly on ancient Egyptian temples and tombs. These flowers are either Nymphaea caerulea (blue Egyptian lotus) or Nymphaea lotus (white Egyptian lotus), and are native to Egypt. They are depicted in party scenes where the flower is either being held, sniffed or worn as a headdress adornment.
It is also seen in religious contexts, and the remains of these flowers have been found inside burial tombs including those of Tutankhamen (1323 B.C.) and Ramesses II (c. 1500 B.C.). Because the flower opens in the morning and closes in the later afternoon, it was seen as a symbol of the rising and setting sun. It was also frequently used as a motif on the top of stone columns, as were papyrus plants and palm trees.
There are two broad categories of aquatic plants, the flowers of which we admire. They are family Nymphaeaceae — generally considered water lilies — and family Nelumbonaceae, which includes the sacred lotus of the east. At one time, these families were considered to be more closely related. However, with the greater availability of genomic information, plants can — and are — recategorized. The Nymphaeaceae are members of order Nymphaeales, while the Nelumbonaceae are in order Proteales.
This systemization work is done by the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group, which began in 1998. Version IV was presented in 2016. Since genomes are long and complicated, the work depends on comparing only two genes within chloroplasts — the organelle in plants responsible for photosynthesis, and one gene “coding for ribosomes” (the protein-making machinery inside the cell).
Phylogenetics is the study of relationships between organisms using genetic information to elucidate the evolutionary development of organisms, thereby teasing out their relationships to each other.
The group we are particularly interested in is the Nelumbonaceae. This family has only two members. The first is Nelumbo lutea, also known as the yellow lotus, which is native to North America. Generally lutea, from the Latin, is understood to mean “yellow.” However, lutum means “muddy,” and the roots of these plants grow in the muddy bottom of ponds and lakes.
Now we will consider Nelumbo nucifera, the sacred lotus known as padma from the Sanskrit. While the lotus appears in many eastern religions including Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism, it is particularly associated with Buddhism and depictions of the Buddha.
The lotus symbolizes purity of body, speech and mind because, despite growing from a muddy lake bottom, the beautiful blossoms grow unsullied above their origins, representing enlightenment.
The attraction of the fabric is that it is soft, breathable and almost wrinkle-free. These qualities may be the result of the fineness of the lotus fibers. The highest quality cashmere yarns are 12 to 15 microns (0.013 mm) in diameter, while lotus fibers are only 3 to 4 microns in diameter.
The best fibers are harvested during the monsoon season (June to October) when the water level in the lakes is highest and the stems, therefore, are at their longest. Harvested throughout the day, the stems are scored and broken open, and the 20 to 30 fine white filaments are extracted from the stems.
These fibers are rolled into 100-yard lengths, which can be spun together to increase their strengths. One spinner can produce approximately 270 yards of thread daily, and it takes 25 spinners to keep one weaver busy.
The cloth is woven in 100-yard batches. It takes about 32,000 stems and 40 days to produce one yard making lotus fabric the most expensive fabric in the world. The yarn is sometimes combined with silk to reduce the price of finished pieces.
I hope one day to actually see and touch a piece of this extraordinary fabric!
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