ALL YELLOW: Native to the Sandbridge area, the yellow lotus was once relied on as food by Native Virginians and later celebrated with a week-long festival
For just three days during the summer each yellow lotus blooms, casting a glimmering aura over Lotus Garden Park. Once an iconic presence in Virginia Beach, the regional cultural resonance of this unique flora has been largely forgotten. Yet its concealed natural wonder, mostly hidden along Sandbridge Road, has a special place in local history.
Native to the Sandbridge area, the golden lotus (known officially as the Nelumbo lutea) has long grown in Virginia Beach. Once relied on as food by the region’s Native tribes, the wildflower grows from June to September with buds opening in the morning and closing by late afternoon.
Lotus Garden Park is a hotspot thanks to its heavy supply of fresh and brackish water. It also provides plenty of muddy soil and full sun—conditions it loves. In fact, the park has one of the biggest accumulations of it in the city thanks to this. But while there are plenty of blooms to see now, they’re just a small fraction of what once was.
As the official flower of Virginia Beach, the lotuses were historically so abundant in the park that in the early 1950s, the newly founded Cape Henry Woman’s Club designated it their official symbol. In 1955, the club partnered with Tabernacle United Methodist Church (situated across the street from Lotus Garden Park) to host the first Lotus Festival, a grand weeklong fundraising event that featured parades, meals, a formal ball and the crowning of a Lotus Queen.
In a effort to protect the beloved flower, this mid-century celebration became so renowned that people around the country came to visit and there were heavy requests for its seeds. As the 1970s rolled around though, the festival dwindled, but the church continued to host a scaled-down version until 2019.
By the 1980s, the Sandbridge lotus was practically gone mainly due to the notorious fungal disease anthracnose. While efforts were made to substantially revive it, they were hopeless. There are still a handful left in the park, but the vast, fragrant yellow sea has since vanished, and with it, the heavy fanfare it once knew.
Despite its decline, the remaining lotuses continue to be an important part of the region’s culture, but they are still heavily susceptible to environmental changes. During the past few decades, the lotuses have gone through periods of fantastic blooms to other years when they did not show up at all.
Les Parks, Norfolk Botanical Garden’s horticultural director, explains that this is typical: “A lot of plants go through cycles depending on weather and water conditions. Some years they’re subject to more stress.” While the lotuses’ lack of show can sometimes be solely due to Mother Nature, their absence can also be a result of water quality. “The more pollution and runoff that occurs will be damaging to the water lotus,” Parks notes.
So, what’s the best way to preserve these flowers? Simply by caring for wetlands. As Parks says, “Wetlands act like a gigantic sponge which absorbs water before floods and filters sediment before it enters waterways. Just by protecting wetlands we will protect lotuses.”
While your greatest chance for seeing this plant is at Lotus Garden Park, there are a few other places to see them. “They’ve been spotted in the past on both sides of the causeway between Pembroke Meadows and Wayside Park and the Ferry Plantation House,” the city’s parks and landscape services director Frank Fentress recalls. “They’ve also been seen at Stumpy Lake on the north side of the causeway near the Stumpy Lake canoe/kayak launch when the water stayed high for an extended period.”
Virginia Beach’s lotuses might be a cherished feature but one that’s still often taken for granted. The more that’s learned about the flower, the more it might truly be appreciated for what it is and its positive impact on the local environment. And who knows, with the right tools and hard work, a magnificent Lotus Festival could take off once more.
Images Courtesy of Dave Uhrin