The amazing survival of the Asian Sacred Lotus of Echo Park Lake

My previous post introduced you to Echo Park Lake. If you haven’t yet read that, you might want to start HERE before moving on to the story of how the Lotus have survived.

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I finally have the opportunity to sit down and give some backstory to why I find the Echo Park Lotus so intriguing. Much of my current enthusiasm for these Lotus comes from very recent events.  I find the story so compelling I haven’t wanted to leave a bit of it on the cutting room floor. So I’ll get on with it and see how we do!

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You might want to know why this so-called lake is sitting in the middle of one of the oldest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Just a couple of blocks from here you’d stumble upon Angeleno Heights, a unique collection of Victorian homes representing a very well-preserved Victorian-era suburb. Echo Park Lake is even older, started as an 1860s drinking water reservoir when Los Angeles was heavily populated with farms and ranches.

The lotus were introduced long after, in a period of the early 20th century when horticulturists were flocking to the promise of a fertile California.

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There are a variety of stories surrounding how lotuses came to the Lake. I have a favorite.

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If you don’t know the name Aimee Semple McPherson, then you’re missing out on an entirely different story that I can’t really tell here, but as a simple frame of reference she was a famed evangelist skilled in the art of using modern media. She was the second woman to hold a broadcasting license.

McPherson started her preaching career in 1913 and drew huge crowds to her theatrical healing services. She was instrumental in raising thousands of dollars in War Bonds during WWII and her dramatic style of preaching made her one of the most famous personalities of her day. And of course there’s the story of her kidnapping, You really do need to know Sister Aimee!

Her 1923 “theater house,” the monumental Angelus Temple, still sits adjacent Echo Park Lake.

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One of the most credible of the stories suggests that McPherson brought an Asian Sacred Lotus to the Lake following a missionary trip to China. That one Lotus is credited with reproducing by the hundreds until by 1972 the blooms were so spectacular the city began celebrating with an annual Lotus Festival. As many as 150,000 people came to admire the blooms.

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And then it all came to an end. By 2008 ALL the lotus were dead. How could that happen? You don’t really want to hear me carping about the city’s ridiculously inadequate maintenance with storm drains and chemical run-off. Some say there was simply natural die-off. It’s probably a mixture of both.

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Of course you could just repopulate the lake with new plants, but the originals were a unique cultivar. After spending 80 years in the Echo Park mud the lotus were unique. While the city figured out what to do they drained the lake and set out on a two-year revitalization project.

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And here’s my favorite part of the story. While conversations whirled about where to obtain new lotus stock there was one person thinking about the best way to enter into the negotiations and how he was going to tell the city officials what he had in his personal greenhouse. Randy McDonald, a commercial gardener, contacted one of the festival organizers and told him he had the Asian Sacred Lotus.

What? How could that be?

My mother-in-law would have loved this story. She, too, felt that taking a little “pinch” off a plant in a public or private botanical garden or commercial nursery was just fine.  She theorized she was doing the plant a favor by pinching it back and forcing new growth, and if it meant you had a little piece at home for rooting, it was all good.

Randy McDonald had his own excuses. He explained that he watched as the lotus were neglected, and in 2005 he took a hacksaw blade and made five cuts to a leader, put the pieces in a plastic bag and took them home to cultivate for his interested clients. In his pond-filled greenhouses he cultivated the lotus and was able to supply the city with 378 containers of lotus tubers. He also was paid $30,000 for his “trouble.”

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The Lake reopened in June 2013 and draws a huge crowd on the weekends. The Lotus Festival returned in July,  the paddle boats are once again in operation and birdwatchers and artists regularly make themselves at home.

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But the jewel of the lake is the blanket of Lotus that will continue to reach deep into the mud and provide a spectacularly colorful display each year, hopefully at least another 80 years!

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I hope someone has thought ahead this time to cultivate a few spare tubers and leader plants, don’t you? They are now netted in a way as to discourage good-natured thievery. We just got lucky this time!

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Credit for much of this information goes to Kelsi Maree Borland’s article, “Sacred Offering” in the July 2014 Los Angeles magazine.

71 thoughts on “The amazing survival of the Asian Sacred Lotus of Echo Park Lake

    • Isn’t it just so fun that the “purloined” lotus came back? Randy saved the day. I wonder if before he “came clean” he had a few sleepless nights wondering how he was going to tell his side of the story? LOL! Have a great weekend, Colleen.

      • In the midst of a lovely weekend here! I hope you are as well.

        It would be interesting to know his side of the story. :) I am impressed with him doing what he did when he saw the decline of care and neglect.

  1. Happy endings all ’round, Debra ! :-) That photo up the top – Angeleno Heights ? That could EASILY be Sydney. In fact, were it not for the water geysers, I would’ve sworn it was. Same climate, I s’pose …

    • M-R–I am always so interested in how much similarly I see between parts of Southern California and the photos I see of Sydney. I’m sure a lot of it is climate, but we also have so many trees that were brought over from Australia I think that adds to it. Most of our trees are not native. So maybe we have a long history of purloining plants and trees that came from other places. :-) I hope you have a very nice weekend!

  2. Thank you for this story! Pretty sure it would be my favourite too, if I knew any of the other versions to compare.
    Did you know that “Om mani padme hum” means (the middle two words anyway, the first and last being body-resonating healing tonal syllables) “the jewel is in the lotus” ? Your words, “the jewel of the lake is the blanket of lotus” made me think of that.

    • Thank you for the mantra, Dandy! Translated it is really quite beautiful. I know that the lotus has a lot of meaning and mythology and I’d really like to know more. It has captured my imagination! I hope you have a wonderful weekend. :-)

  3. They look wonderful. I knew a lady (mother in law to two of my brothers), who suffered from the same affliction of pinching samples from plants. No matter how long she had them in her pocket they always grew.

    • I used to be so uncomfortable when my mother-in-law would start pinching back the plants, and now that she’s been gone a long time we still laugh whenever we see a plant that could use a little pruning. She had a wonderful green thumb. Sounds like you know a few of those, too. :-)

  4. You can surely imagine my thrill at reading this, especially Randy McDonald’s contribution to the story. :) There is always an opportunity “out there”, and while others were after gold and land, he was rescuing lotus, with a nice bit of ransom money to boot. Love the story. I would enjoy Echo Lake, Debra. Your photos are breathtaking; the egret, the blooms, the skyline. I love the pods that form from the flowers. Wonderful post and history. Off I go to find out a bit more about McPherson.

    Have a great day – and weekend, my friend.

    • I love the lotus pods, too, Penny. I am going to be interested in seeing how the lake looks this fall as the lotus die-back. I’m not precisely sure at which stage in the life cycle of the lotus the pods develop. I’ll be taking note. :-) I do love the story of the “purloining” landscaper. I can imagine his frustration when he saw he plants being neglected and dying off. I would have been tempted to do the same, but he really took the matter into his own hands and ended up saving the day! Oh you’ll find some good stuff on Aimee Semple McPherson. She was really something in her day. I think Faye Dunaway was in a movie about her at one time. I hope you, too, have a very nice weekend, Penny!

  5. Your timing was impeccable. I have a pond. Last night some critter went in and ate my beautiful water lilies. I am heart broken. Looking at these beautiful lotus was both painful and uplifting. I am fortunate in that mine will grow back unlike the ones that died out there but I understand the sadness when one day they are gone.

    • I’m so sorry about your beautiful lilies, Kate! We had that happen one time in our yard, too, when we think raccoons got into a fight with our fish. But the lilies were just completely shredded, so I know what you mean. It took two years for them to come fully back, but they’re huge now, so I know yours will be, too. It’s hard to imagine what happens to shred them like that, though, isn’t it?

  6. Debra, while I’ve read your previous story, I didn’t know they even had lotus plants…nor of their “muddied” history of being wiped out. Fascinating. And great photos as always!!

    • I’m glad I could tell you a little bit about the lotus and Echo Park Lake, Koji. It’s such an interesting place. You’ll have to consider coming up and taking the kids out on the paddle boats. Weekends seem to be awfully busy, but maybe in the all it will settle down a little. :-)

  7. Dear Debra, the enthusiasm you bring to your “history lessons” is infectious. Thank you again for sharing with me all you love about California. I so enjoyed learned how the man who took a cutting!!!! and then saved the day for the city planners as they began to work on the Echo Lake project. And I want to share with you a book that my cousin Joe wrote. He, too, loves nature and history and he’s written and had published a children’s book on Kate Sessions whose love of trees changed San Diego. The book is “The Tree Lady.” I so hope you can find it at the library and read it to your granddaughters. They will love the illustrations and the cadence of Joe’s writing. Peace.

    • I’m so glad you were as amused as I was about the “stolen” lotus, Dee! I don’t know too many people rewarded so handsomely for a little thievery! But it all seemed to work out well. I am really interested in your cousin’s book, Dee. I will find it! I love San Diego and I have been doing a little study on the trees in Southern California, so this is perfect. And yes, I can share it with the girls. Thank you! So writing runs in the family!! :-)

      • Dear Debra, I haven’t visited with Joe in many years. He lives in the Northwest and I’m here in the Midwest and I’ve missed seeing him the two times I visited family in Seattle back in the 1980s. So I was surprised when I got the e-mail from Joe telling me about the book. But I’m so pleased for him because it’s doing well and it’s just a lovely picture book in so many ways. I’m also pleased that you are going to look for it and share it with your granddaughters. Peace.

    • The lake is such a surprise to even those of us who have lived here our whole lives. I haven’t been out on the water yet, but I’d like to. THe little boat house has a bit of a lighthouse appearance. :-)

  8. So interesting and such beautiful photos, Debra! It’s hard to choose a favorite, each has a different quality and appeal. But I think that purple/white one really stands out for me. :)

    • Is that right, Robert? Rowing in the lake? How about that. I have driven by the lake my whole life, to be honest I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to it until I began to hear about the revitalization of the area. Now I’m “hooked” and quite impressed. I would love to have some memories of it “before” to attach to. I’m glad I could share a little bit more for you to attach to your memories. :-)

  9. I really like that story Debra! I don’t know if I would have dared own up to pinching a cutting… it must have been a tough decision for that gardener to “tell”! Still, he clearly made the right decision and those flowers are gorgeous. Love your photos! :)

    • I’ve been so eager to share this story, Cathy. I’m really glad you enjoyed it. I wonder if McDonald at least had one or two sleepless nights of conscious while he considered “coming clean!” Tee-hee!

    • Isn’t it a fun story? I can just imagine the thoughts running through McDonald’s mind as he knew he had the plants all along but knew he’d need to “fess up” and admit his previous thievery! I’m so glad I could share this story with you. :-)

  10. Cool story. For a moment there, I thought I read Ronald McDonald. :lol: Well, thanks be to Randy McDonald for his naughtiness. :) Otherwise, you wouldn’t had been able to show really awesome images of the lotus. So should we start cutting lotus in different places just in case?

    • I am thinking that I would like to begin cultivating lotus myself, Rommel. I have enough room in my pond for one! LOL! But somehow I think it would be fun to see what happens with the cuttings. And McDonald (not Ronald) really didn’t have any idea that what he was doing would one day be celebrated. I don’t know if Echo Park Lake will be as interesting to me when the lotus are dormant, but I’ll be returning often just to see how they’re doing. :-) Thank you for stopping by, my friend!

  11. My mum was a plant snitcher, always when she visited Canada from England, a stem from here, a seed from there. I was always embarrassed by her liberation of botanicals. After reading your wonderful story I understood that plant snitchers are just the same as bees and butterflys, spreading, reseeding and repopulating…Your historical tale is inspiring Debra, thanks for the share…

  12. Wow! That’s an incredible story. I can’t believe one of the men who stole the lotus flowers was actually paid $30.000 to return them. What good fortune for him. I think I’ve heard of that Aimee preacher xx

  13. I love this story, Debra! It’s so interesting and well-written. And I love your beautiful photographs of the lotus. I also really enjoyed reading everyone’s comments about “plant snitchers” too–I’m glad they are out there. I’m putting Echo Park Lake on my “things to do” list for the next time we are in Los Angeles. Great post! :)) ~ Jeannie

    • Thank you so much, Jeannie. I am so pleased that you enjoyed the story of the “stolen” and returned Lotus flowers. It amuses me so! And I am delighted to think I may help you make some choices with things to do in Los Angeles. I think that’s just great. :-)

  14. I went back to read the previous post and I’m here now to say Bravo to the man who was smarter than everyone else:) And Bravo to you for such gorgeous photography, Deb! I especially love the second one down and think you should enlarge this one and frame it. To gaze every day on a beautiful lotus photo would be so wonderful! xx

    • I appreciate the compliment on the photos of the Lotus flowers, Smidge. Maybe I will follow through with a few prints for my office. It would definitely be a nice focus. I have a nice office with a window, but I almost always yearn to be outdoors. :-)

  15. It’s quite amazing that one lotus flower has given rise to a whole lotus festival. And how great then that Randy McDonald cultivated the flowers on his own so that lake again could be revitalization. Great story, Debra.

    • As I think was probably pretty clear by my enthusiasm, I just loved this story, too, Otto. I get so amused thinking of how the gentleman propagated the “stolen” lotus plants all those years and then more than likely had to wrestle with his conscience before admitting his deed. I’m glad I could share the details. :-) I think our long growing season must have helped the lotus multiply so rapidly.

  16. A fascinating story Debra – lovely photos to complement it too :-) I don’t doubt that there will be other stories to follow and report on in future :-)

    • Thank you, Martin. I am so glad you enjoyed the photos taken at Echo Park Lake. Fortunately the day was beautiful and with the Lotus in bloom I didn’t need to work very hard at taking nice photos. :-) Everywhere I looked it felt like I should be snapping photos. :-)

  17. What a lovely story, Debra, and how farsighted of that gardener to “rescue” a few cuttings from the lotus. My mother was an inveterate taker of cuttings (even where it was strictly forbidden) and could make the smallest cutting “take” and flourish. :)

    • I’m so glad you were able to catch up with the story of the Echo Park Lotus, Perpetua. I know how busy you’ve been in transitioning home, especially under the circumstances of your friend’s death, and I hope that you are finding opportunities to rest and be still. There seem to be so many lovely stories associated with Lotus about “stillness” and “peace” and they make a nice focal point for restful thoughts. Your mother and Jay’s mother would have been good friends! :-) I think I have some of the geraniums she started with little pinches she picked up along the way. I used to get so embarrassed. LOL!

  18. What a perfect modern fairytale, Debra! I have many relations who snip off cuttings in our most beautiful gardens. True, if everyone did it, there wouldn’t be any beautiful plants: but there are few who have the green fingers to make these tiny snippets come to life, and fewer who see the point in this society where one can go out and buy why might take time and energy to grow. Here is someone whose industry has redeemed a public space. I loved this post!

    • I’m really glad you didn’t miss the story of the Lotus and Echo Park Lake, Kate. It just tickles me to no end to think of this gentleman having the original Lotus plants in his care and determining how he was going to come to the city’s rescue without implicating himself as a thief! LOL! It’s not uncommon for a city bureaucrat to miss the entire point of his generosity and to focus on the perceived infraction. This lake is in the middle of a part of Los Angeles that could so easily be entirely overlooked, and instead, it’s a jewel! On a personal note, I’ve been thinking I’d like to see if I can grow some lotus from seed. What I’d do with them afterwards I really don’t know, but I’ve become intrigued with the idea of propagation. I’m not sure I need another hobby, but I’m not always practical. :-) So nice to hear from you, my friend.

  19. We seem to have lost touch this summer, Debbie, but it’s impossible to keep up with everyone, isn’t it? I just had to come for a close up of your lotus blooms! Beautiful! :) Take care.

    • Hi Jo! I am quite sure you’ll find this hard to believe, but I was thinking of you today. I mean that with all sincerity. We are on a little vacation and I was looking at the coastal ice plant (carpobrotus) and remembering we had spoken about it. I have really fallen off the grid a lot this summer. Perhaps I needed a break from blogging, although that wasn’t really what I was after. I just have had too many other things taking my time, I suppose. I have honestly really missed visiting, and hope that I can find a better flow to my evenings and resume soon! I’m so glad you stopped by to say hello. ox

I always enjoy hearing from you!

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