HARTFORD – At the right time of year and the right time of day, the Ten Mile Creek Nursery is filled with blooming lotuses. Roots planted in the mud, the leaves float on the water of the pots and basins through the soil of the nursery. Beautiful, fragrant flowers stretch out towards the sun for a few hours before closing.
It’s an unusual sight at a nursery in southeast Alabama, but flowering aquatic plants seem to be thriving at what was once a commercial tilapia farm in Geneva County.
Lotus flowers open in the morning and begin to close in the afternoon. It’s a cycle that the flowers repeat for a few days before the petals begin to fall and leave the seed pods behind.
When lotuses are in bloom, bees and wasps cover themselves with nectar, and it’s not uncommon to find one sleeping in a flower, owner Laura Bancroft said.
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“Sometimes they look like they’re not sure they’ll be able to fly, they’re so heavy,” she said.
Often confused with water lilies, the lotus plant is native to many countries, including China and India, as well as Russia and Australia. There are even two varieties of lotus native to North America. Lotuses appear in Greek mythology and more than one religion has used the flower as a symbol of rebirth and awakening.
Despite their beautiful flowers, these are not the lotus flowers that Ten Mile Creek Nursery sells.
“We don’t sell live plants,” Bancroft said. “We grow everything, enjoy it, and then we harvest the tubers.”
The tubers – the elongated roots of the plant – are sold to nurseries who wholesale the tubers or cultivate the aquatic plants for resale to customers. Customers include nurseries in South Florida and New Jersey. The Hartford Nursery sells tubers to landscapers who make gardens and ponds for customers. There are also lovers who adore the lotus. Ten Mile Creek Nursery sells thousands of tubers a year.
Each container at Ten Mile Creek – and there are many – can produce between five and 25 tubers. Large plants produce between eight and 10 tubers. Depending on the variety, lotus tubers sell for between $25 and $55 each. Rare and highly demanded varieties cost nearly $100.
Currently, the lotus tubers are in their active growth phase, wrapping themselves around the bottom of the pots. In the fall, they will swell like a sweet potato as the rest of the plant goes dormant. It takes about three months – usually January to March – to then harvest the lotus tubers in containers at Ten Mile Creek. Once harvested, the tubers go into a cooler for storage. They are finally packaged for sale, and by May Ten Mile Creek is usually sold out.
In one season, the nursery can harvest 30,000 to 40,000 tubers – some are kept for replanting; the rest is sold.
The varieties of lotus grown in Ten Mile Creek have big names like Song of Moon, Dancing in Jade Tower, Decorated Lantern, Charming Lips, Splendid Sunset, Flamingo, High Cotton and Golden Sunset.
Hues of white, yellow, pink and red rise above the green leaves of the lotus plants growing in the water-filled containers at Ten Mile Creek Nursery. There are even versicolor lotus plants with more than one hue and changing lotus plants with flowers that change color during their short lifespan. There are micro lotus, small lotus, medium and large. The flowers may have fewer than 25 petals seen on more classic lotus varieties, double petals, or be known as the thousand-petalled lotus.
“When you’re in your lotus community, you have people who want more and more petals and then you have people who are the purists and what they want is a perfect flower with less than 25 petals. “Bancroft said. . “People who prefer the classic are diehards, and that’s all they want.”
Named after the creek that runs through the property, Ten Mile Creek Nursery was established in 2004 by Bill Bancroft, Laura’s son and graduate of Auburn University’s School of Horticulture. It was originally a nursery stocked with a variety of plants, but when Auburn University was looking for research sites to grow lotus and catfish together, Ten Mile Creek Nursery was a good choice.
The fish farm once operated by Laura Bancroft’s father, JP Kennedy, still had plumbed ponds, and Bill was even mentored by his grandfather when he started. Eventually, Bill decided his future wasn’t entirely in horticulture, and he went to medical school, graduating from the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine in Dothan.
Laura Bancroft stepped in to manage the nursery. Everything she learned about lotus cultivation came from her experience at the nursery. It won’t be long before the leadership is handed over to another son, Ben, a former marine engineer.
Today, the former fish ponds – 17 in all – serve as the certified organic side of Ten Mile Creek Nursery. The organic plants are harvested for biochemical company Ashland which uses different parts of the plants to make a botanical ingredient used in Coppertone sunscreen lotion, Aveeno sunscreen and Dior perfumes. For this harvest, which takes place in the summer, Bancroft hires additional farmhands and local high school students to help with the nursery.
Ashland sends a team to process the plants on site as they are harvested.
With this year’s weather, Bancroft expected each pond to produce about 3,000 pounds of biomass.
The nursery has not tapped into the floral market with lotus flowers or seed pods, which are dried and used as accents in arrangements. The flowers just don’t last long enough, and with only two full-time, year-round employees, it’s not possible to harvest them.
The seeds themselves are edible, and in other parts of the world the seeds are eaten green or dried and stretched into long strands. The seeds, which are heavy in starch, are also pulverized and used as a thickener in soups. Other parts of the lotus plant, such as the root tubers, are also edible.
“When I was in China, the seeds were served candied, fried, boiled — like we boil peanuts — chopped, and they use it a lot in stir-fries,” Bancroft said.
As soon as they emerge from the pod, the seeds are covered in a thick husk which is removed to access the edible part which has a nutty sweetness. Bancroft isn’t shy about picking up a few for customers who want to try something different.
“They’re actually really tasty,” she says. “…They are extremely good for you; very rich in antioxidants.
Peggy Ussery is a staff writer for Dothan Eagle and can be reached at [email protected] or 334-712-7963. Support his work and that of other Eagle journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at dothaneagle.com.