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Lack of blooms casts a pall over Lotus Festival

A cold winter and spring plus a lack of rain are blamed for the poor crop for Echo Park's annual celebration.

July 06, 2007|Tiffany Hsu and Tami Abdollah | Times Staff Writers

With year-round fire season and record low rainfall, Los Angeles is, without a doubt, one hot place.

But memories of winter's cold snaps linger. The freezes of January that resulted in crop losses for farmers and blanketed Malibu in snow also gave the lotus plants at Echo Park cold feet.

For decades, the lotus bed at the northern end of the park's lake was near full bloom at this time of year, just in time for the July 13-15 Lotus Festival that always takes place on the second weekend of this month.

But this year and last, because of the extremely cold winter and spring, the growth of the warm-weather plants was stunted and delayed, said David Foster, gardener and caretaker of Echo Park.

"We had a prolonged period of really cold weather, around 30 degrees and under, for multiple days in a row," Foster said. "For downtown L.A., that's a bit abnormal."

Only about 30 lotus blooms are scattered against the lake's bank, hugging its sides; typically at this time of year, there are hundreds of blooms, grandly rising out of the water and across the small cove in the northern corner of the 15-acre lake. Concrete below the plants holds them in about 3 feet of water, while the rest of the lake is about 8 feet deep.

Since 1972, the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks has held the Lotus Festival at Echo Park not only because of the lotuses but because of the park's proximity to the Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Koreatown and Filipino communities.

According to legend, the lotuses were introduced to the lake in the 1920s by evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who collected them on a missionary trip conducted by her Angelus Temple, across the street from the park.

The dearth of lotus blooms seems to be more severe than this time last year, said neighbors, who estimated that there were up to three times more flowers in 2006.

Thomas DeBoe, chairman of the Echo Park Advisory Board, said the petals are falling off the existing blooms. Several local plant specialists have examined the flowers, DeBoe said, and the board is trying to call in a city botanist to investigate the flowers' slow growth.

"Everybody is really concerned about it," DeBoe said, adding that this is the first year he has seen so few blossoms. "Right now, it's just a little strip; that whole area should be covered with lotus."

DeBoe said the city should consider importing some lotus blooms for the festival. Foster said ideas have been suggested about heating the plants next year to prevent a similar delay, but otherwise, he said, "It's something that's out of our hands."

But it may be this year's record low rainfalls, not the current heat wave, that is at fault, said William Patzert, a climatologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge.

Though last year's cool spring and warm summer led to a "late bloom, but a pretty good one," Patzert said, this winter's cool, dry weather could have deprived the lotuses of essential nutrients present in rainwater, leading to fewer, more anemic blooms.

"In comparison with aqueduct water, rain has a lot of nitrogen, so after it rains, everything greens up," Patzert said. The record-breaking lack of rain "has deprived the lotus of critical ingredients like nitrogen, so this year's crop might be suffering from a nutrient deficiency."

But the Echo Park lotuses aren't the only plants on an unexpected schedule this summer. At Botanicare Plant Services in Manhattan Beach, proprietor Todd Schneider said some of his plants have developed poor growing habits.

"With the excessive heat, the plants dry out and require more water, and a lot of people don't realize that," he said. "This year, we have plants that are supposed to bloom early that aren't and other plants that usually stay dormant that are blooming."

To combat the effects of the weather, Schneider said, Botanicare's staff is working extra hours maintaining the plants by giving them more water and removing dead leaves and blooms.

But he also suggested that the strange behavior of his plants may be due to this year's unexplained absence of pollinating bees.

"There are less honeybees doing less work," Schneider said. "The temperature in California has always been going back and forth, but now there are flowers on trees that usually bloom in spring that are only just blooming now."

Regardless of the reason, if the lotuses fail to emerge en masse by the time of the festival, DeBoe said, tourism and summer spirit will falter in Echo Park.

"The lotus is more than just a plant. It's the theme of the summer," he said. "Everyone is walking around the park commenting about how sad it is -- the summer without a theme. The lotus helps attract a lot of people. It brings the community together."

tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

tami.abdollah@latimes.com

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