Dormant brown lotus plants are visible in Echo Park Lake after recent restoration. (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)
Nancy Smith and her family were strolling around Echo Park Lake on Thursday when they noticed an odd, brown patch in the water.
Smith visited the lake as recently as August and recalled that back then, its bright green lotus plants shot into the air.
But on the day after Christmas, the wilted bed of bronze flowers before her drooped onto the water like a sea of broken miniature umbrellas.
"I've walked around this park in the winter and I don't remember it ever quite looking like this," said Smith, 56, a lawyer from La Crescenta. "I'm sure hoping it comes back green in the spring."
Rest assured, horticultural experts say, the famed flowers are not dead.
The lotus is a deciduous plant, said Randy McDonald, the man who sold the city more than 300 of them for the lake restoration. That means they grow part of the year and are dormant another part of the year.
December is part of the dormant period, but "the lotus are going to come back," McDonald said.
Still, the flowers' health is a sensitive subject to locals. When Echo Park Lake reopened earlier this year after a $45-million makeover, people flocked to see the newly installed lotus plants, which were making their return to the lake after a multiyear absence.
As recently as 2005, the lotuses stood five feet high and spilled onto the shore. But about seven years ago, the flowers started to shrivel and the leaves began to brown. By 2008, they had disappeared.
Some people blamed the lake's dirty water, others accused natural predators — fish, turtles and crayfish. A crew of biologists did a study, but they never pinpointed a cause.
The plants were restored recently under a veil of black protective mesh and hundreds of Angelenos turned out in June to celebrate the rebirth.
June is around the time lotuses get their first flowers, said Virginia Hayes, a lotus expert who consulted on the lake's restoration project. They continue to bloom into the summer, she said; then, in the winter, the top of the plant "turns brown and goes away."
"In nature they might wither and fall into the bottom of the pond like fertilizer," said Hayes, a curator at the Ganna Walska Lotusland garden in Santa Barbara. "They are native to habitats that have real winters.… They have evolved to go dormant when the conditions are unfavorable for growth above the water. They still do that even if we plant them in California."
Hayes said the growth the plants achieved this year was "amazing," and McDonald expects the plants "to come back with an intensity that will be superior to what we saw before."
The experts said new leaves will sprout in late March or early April. By summertime, they said, the flowers will bloom again.
If that's the case, "it might be nice to put up a sign," Smith said, "so people don't think that they're dead."
Times staff writer Marisa Gerber contributed to this report.