One man's labor of love ensures lotus blossoms brightly in West Lake

Wu Huixin
Chen Laidi has spent 43 years carefully releasing lotus seeds at West Lake. He wakes up at 3am and finishes by 8am to beat the scorching heat this year.
Wu Huixin

For almost 43 years, Chen Laidi has been painstakingly releasing lotus seeds in the West Lake. He will be doing the job for the last time this summer as he reaches the retirement age of 60.

With temperatures this year touching 38 degrees Celsius, the lake's surface isn't as cool as many think, with billows of steam rising as early as 8am on some days. To avoid the heat wave, Chen has been getting up at 3am and finishing his work by 8am.

Aquatic plants are abundant around the areas where lotus blooms. Working in such a muggy environment can be taxing.

"The temperatures around the lotus areas can reach 40 to 50 degrees Celsius, similar to a sauna," Chen said. "Ordinary people will suffer from heatstroke after only a few minutes, whereas workers may be able to hold out for an hour.

"I am accustomed to working in high temperatures for decades, so I can work for longer periods of time."

Chen drinks water like crazy to avoid dehydration and heat stroke, both of which can be fatal.

"The job is difficult, but I am satisfied when I see the lotus bloom. Taking care of flowers is similar to looking after children," Chen remarked.

Every so often, Chen and his co-workers need to clear some of the leaves and flowers to prevent them from growing too thick.

"The top layer of leaves prevents sunlight from reaching the lower layers, which can impede the overall growth of the plant.

"As a result, we must remove some to guarantee that the lower leaves receive adequate light," Chen explained.

One man's labor of love ensures lotus blossoms brightly in West Lake
Ti Gong

Chen Laidi rows a small plastic boat on the West Lake to clear the area for lotus flowers to bloom.

The lotus flowering season stretches until late August.

Currently, 90 percent of the second batch of lotus has blossomed. Chen recommends that visitors watch the flowers in bloom before 8am, when the air is cleaner and cooler.

"There are 24 lotus zones in the West Lake, with the largest flower measuring 30 centimeters in diameter. I would recommend visiting the Solitary Hill and Broken Bridge since these two sites have bigger, more beautiful flowers this year," Chen said.

The earliest buds usually appear in late May or early June.

The month of April is critical because the stems and roots are sprouting underwater. Chen and his colleagues must fence the lotus region to protect the plants from fish.

In early May, the wild aquatic plants in the lake begin to grow excessively and crowd out the available area for the lotus to grow. Therefore, personnel are needed to clear them out of the area to make room for the lotus.

One man's labor of love ensures lotus blossoms brightly in West Lake
Ti Gong

The lotus in the West Lake is in full boom these days.

One man's labor of love ensures lotus blossoms brightly in West Lake
Ti Gong

Growing in mud, the lotus blooms into a gorgeous flower, with the largest blossom measuring 30 centimeters in diameter.

Chen and his colleagues begin plucking the seedpods in mid-August. The raw seeds embedded in the round pods taste refreshing and aromatic, and those growing around the West Lake have long been popular with chefs.

As the lotus withers, Chen and his colleagues must harvest the dried plants to foster the growth of new lotus in the coming season. The process also helps to maintain a balanced ecosystem in the lake.

Growing in mud, the lotus blossoms into a gorgeous flower and is revered as the embodiment of beauty and purity, as well as honesty and perseverance. According to records, the West Lake has been planting lotus seeds since the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

The lotus blooms in the West Lake have been praised in prose and poetry since ancient times and continue to attract large crowds of people even today. Their long-lasting beauty, however, cannot be maintained without years of maintenance work.

"When I retire, I plan to focus on passing on my knowledge to the next generation. I can't let go of the lotus flowers," Chen said.

He recommended a couple of routes for appreciating the undulating lotus. Shanghai Daily will cover it on Monday.

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