Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Food Of Lotus-Eaters

The name, Lotus, conjures visions of those elegant aquatic plants (Nelumbo spp.) native to Asia and Africa that rise serenely above the muddy water.  But they are not the lotus I'm describing here.

Some readers may think of the mythical lotus-eaters described by Odysseus.  Their fruity snacks were said to have the power to remove memory and ambition.  They were not eating Nelumbo, but probably the fruit of a Zizyphus or Diospyros.  But even these are not properly "lotus."

How is it that different plants can be known by the same name?  Confusion, perhaps ignorance or loss of memory (someone already used that name?).  Want of desire to think of something original.  It has been suggested that ancient Greek naturalists applied the name, lotus, to several unrelated plants.

The lotus I'm writing about is actually of the genus, Lotus.  It belongs to the Fabacaea or Leguminacaea family, which includes beans, peas, kudzu, lupines and redbud trees.

Lotus contains many species with world-wide distribution.  Of course, some of them were introduced to new lands for various reasons.  Such is the case with Lotus corniculatus (pronounced LO-tus kor-nik-you-LAY-tus), commonly called Birdsfoot Trefoil, Deervetch and lots of other things.

Birdsfoot Trefoil, native to Europe, Asia and north Africa, was distributed elsewhere for cattle fodder.  Cattle, you see, are the real lotus eaters.  The plant is also useful for erosion control and as an ornamental ground cover.  It typically grows up to 6" in height, spreads rapidly and forms a dense carpet.  The deciduous foliage resembles clover.  Attractive yellow, pea-like flowers are produced in late spring to early summer.  Because it tolerates foot traffic, it is fine as a lawn substitute in suitable areas. It's reasonably drought-tolerant.

Though cattle can eat it, humans must not for it contains toxic cyanogenic glycosides.  Perhaps for that reason, in the language of flowers, Birdsfoot Trefoil is a symbol of revenge.  Nevertheless, in the hands of physicians it has been used medicinally to treat depression, nervousness and insomnia.

Birdsfoot Trefoil thrives in full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 4 to 9.  Soil should be well-drained with pH ranging from 5.6 to 8.5.  With such obvious adaptability, it should do well in most parts of the country.

Before you plant, take a soil sample to your local Cooperative Extension Service office for testing.  The results will specify any soil amendments needed.

Prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 6" deep, removing all traces of weeds. Compacted soil should be cultivated to 10" deep.  Compost may be incorporated into the soil.  Incorporate 10-10-10 fertilizer at a rate of no more 2 lbs. per 100 square feet into the top 4" to 6" of soil. Avoid synthetic fertilizers contacting any part of your plants. 

Space the plants 12" to 15" apart. Dig planting holes into the cultivated soil a little less deep than the depth of the growing container.  Water the plants in the pots, then drain.  Place the plants into the holes and back-fill, watering as you go. Press soil around the root balls. Do not cover entirely the root balls with soil. The tops should be slightly exposed. Add a top-dressing of mulch around the plants, not on top of them, about 1" deep.

Plant Birdsfoot Trefoil with other plants having similar cultural requirements.  Fertilize sparingly and allow soil to dry between watering.

You'll find that it's a low-maintenance plant, having no serious pests or diseases.  Lotus does attract butterflies.

Perhaps you've seen Lotus - Birdsfoot Trefoil - before, but didn't know what it was.  Next time you're driving through the countryside, keep an eye out for it.  You may see cattle munching it serenely with no sign of ambition to do much else.  If you decide to use it as a ground cover, you may find yourself sitting in the garden, content to enjoy its beauty.

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