The Day of the Lotus might as well be called the Day of the Dead.
Echo Park’s famous lotus beds are nothing more than a scattering of a few sickly, brownish pads floating in foul-smelling water, a scene that in two weeks will greet about 150,000 visitors who are expected to attend the 2008 Lotus Festival.
Gone are the hundreds of pink- and cream-colored flowers atop a lush green expanse of umbrella-like leaves that were once described as the largest lotus beds in the nation.
The count as of Saturday: 12 tattered leaves.
Residents and some park managers who had hoped the plants would rebound from two weak years conceded that the lotuses -- with their perfectly sculpted blooms that have long been an icon of summer in urban Los Angeles -- are probably dead.
“I think they’re gone; they’re not going to be reappearing,” said Thomas L. DeBoe, chairman of the Echo Park Advisory Board, who believes the city should have moved early on to resuscitate the lotus.
“They seem to have collapsed. The 31st annual Lotus Festival will have no lotus,” said photographer Martin Cox, who lives near the park and has e-mailed images of the die-off to city officials.
The Echo Park Lake lotus plants are believed to be direct descendants of plants imported from China in the 1920s by Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of the domed Angelus Temple across the street from the park. The popular festival sponsored by the city of L.A.'s Department of Recreation and Parks celebrates the city’s Asian heritage.
No one knows for sure what has destroyed the giant beds after eight decades.
A new city report lists 13 possible causes, from poor water quality and accumulation of chemicals to unauthorized raiding of the edible tubers, pests, disease and a 20-year lapse in refurbishing the beds.
The city is preparing for a $60-million overhaul of Echo Park to begin in July 2010 that would include draining and refilling the lake. The report, released this month, recommends “salvaging” what remains of the lotus tubers and storing them.
“Everyone in Echo Park is sad. It’s so shocking to see it,” said Rhonda Reynolds, co-owner of a nearby cafe. “It breaks my heart. There’s nothing there.”
In the old days, the blooming of the Echo Park lotuses eclipsed the largest, most sumptuous canvases of Monet.
Artists with easels ringed the cove at the lake’s northwest corner. Photographers used their widest lenses to capture the tableau of pinks, greens and blues. Children stood at the water’s edge, entranced by blossoms the size of cantaloupes.
Some residents came simply to meditate. They described the flowers as symbols of Buddhist enlightenment.
Ducks maneuvered through the stalks. Coots were known to build nests in the curved dish of the lotus leaves.
As recently as 2005, the lotuses stood 5 feet high and spilled onto the shore.
The first apparent hint of trouble came in the summer of 2006, when the lotuses bloomed too late for the festival. Experts blamed a cool winter and an unusually hot June.
The lotus bed shrank even more last year, when only about 30 blooms appeared, only on the cove’s western bank. That time, an unusually cold winter was blamed.
Still, nothing prepared park managers and residents for this year’s demise. Just three weeks ago, eight vivid green leaves on stalks protruded above the water. Now, they’re gone.
In the last three days, the 12 remaining floating leaves deteriorated even more, and a new shoot emerging from the water Thursday had drooped under the surface by Saturday.
“The leaves seem to get this brownish quality to them, and they disintegrate,” said Cox, who believes the troubles began after the severe storms and flooding of 2005 and 2006.
Echo Park Lake serves as a storm drain catch basin, leading some to suspect that contaminants from runoff may be harming the lotuses. Bureau of Engineering engineer Alfred Mata, who visited the lake Friday morning, said that runoff flows into the lake only during major storms and that no drains empty directly into the lotus beds.
Two plant experts familiar with the Echo Park lotuses said testing for disease is a reasonable next step. Several factors could be killing the plants, they said.
“I’m sure it’s more than saying one bad thing happened,” said Virginia Hayes, curator of living collections at Lotusland in Santa Barbara, a well-known garden. She said that if only 12 leaves are left, “It would take a great effort for them to rebound from that little remnant.”
Jim Folsom, director of the Huntington Gardens in San Marino, where the lotus beds are flourishing this year, visited Echo Park several months ago at the request of the parks department. He advised planting a small plot of new lotuses to see how they fared.
The staff set three pots in a 12-foot by 12-foot area in the cove, fenced with chicken wire to keep out turtles and other possible predators. Each pot has a different soil mix and lotuses could bloom there in one to two months, said Stephen Moe, who oversees the city’s 17 lakes.
If the potted lotuses flourish, that would suggest that the soil under the lake could be at fault.
The lotus festival will go on as planned July 11 through 13.
“Because the blooms aren’t there doesn’t mean the festival is a flop,” said Kevin Regan, an assistant general manager for the parks department. “The festival is all about rebirth. It’s about coming together as a community.”
City officials haven’t decided what to do next. Regan said that if lotuses are to return to the lake, new tubers must be planted.
But he and others said the cause of the die-off needs to be determined so that future plants can thrive.
Some residents are angry that the city did not act sooner.
“What’s going on right now is a little too late,” DeBoe said. “And it’s a little too little.”
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Possible roots of the problem
A consultant’s report lists possible causes for the die-off of lotuses in Echo Park Lake:
The lake may be impaired because of pollution from algae, ammonia, copper, eutrophic, lead, odor, PCBs, pH levels and trash.
Sediment build-up in the lotus beds may be over-insulating plant roots, keeping them too cool.
Water temperature could vary from too cold to too hot for lotuses.
Chemicals and metals from runoff may be weakening plants.
Turtles and crayfish may be eating more lotus tubers.
Fungi and bacteria can attack leaves, and fusarium and water molds can invade damaged plant tissue.
Stems and tubers may have been damaged by people entering the beds to harvest tubers, considered delicacies in some cultures.
The lotus beds have not been refurbished in more than 20 years.
Source: “Lotus Salvage and Replanting Plan,” prepared by Black & Veatch Corp. consultants for the Los Angeles Department of Public Works, June 2008.