The Sacred Offering of Echo Park

How a little civil disobedience spared the neighborhood’s rare lotus from going the way of the dodo

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Of the various tales about how Echo Park Lake may have acquired its famous lotuses, the one involving Aimee Semple McPherson stands out. It was the early 1920s, the story goes, and the evangelist had returned from a mission in China with an Asian Sacred Lotus. After she set it free in the lake, the lonely lotus soon turned into the bed of hundreds that in 1972 inspired the city to celebrate the annual bloom and its cultural significance among Asians. The Lotus Festival, as it became known, would one day draw as many as 150,000 people to eat, drink, take in a dragon boat race, and of course, admire the lotuses waking from their winter sleep. That is, until 2007, when only 30 flowers bloomed. By 2008, they were completely dead.

Although everything from chemical runoff from the 2005 storms to poor maintenance to a natural die-off was suspected of being the cause, nothing definitive was pinpointed. The city scrambled to find a solution, but you can’t bring back the dead. The answer wasn’t as simple as buying a new batch of flowers, either. These plants had been growing isolated in the lake for eight decades and, as a result, had essentially become a unique cultivar. They were irreplaceable. Without the lotus, the festival soon lost its charm. In 2009, it was canceled, and attempts to throw lotus-free festivals in 2010 and 2011 netted feeble attendance.

So the city undertook a two-year, $26 million project to revive the lake and add landscaping with native plants and grasses to the perimeter. The lake was drained and the lotus remains cleared away as the city sought a replacement. “The community members discussed the option of soliciting lotus from ‘sister’ organizations in Asia, but the decision was made to procure stock that was proven to grow at a similar latitude,” says Virginia Hayes, the curator of the Living Collection at Lotusland, a botanical garden on a former estate near Santa Barbara. Hayes had been contracted by Josh Segal—the project’s lead landscape architect at the engineering and design firm AECOM—to help locate a substitute that honored the historical significance of the original flowers. “Some historians say that the Echo Park lotus are among the earliest cultivated on the West Coast,” Hayes says.

A year went by without any success. Then Steven Lee, who organized the festival’s dragon boat races, received an odd call from Randy McDonald, a commercial gardener in Reseda. “I told him I had the Asian Sacred Lotus that they’d lost,” McDonald says, “and maybe they would want to come to me and we could work out a deal?” The claim seemed impossible. How could a gardener from the Valley have such rare flowers?

Hayes and Segal, along with seemingly everyone at the city’s public works department, shy away from discussing the details of McDonald’s acquisition. McDonald, however, shares no such reticence: He poached them.

It was 2005, the last year the plants would flower. “The lotus were magnificent—all blooming and huge and six feet tall,” says McDonald, a 67-year-old with thinning gray hair and what seems like an ever-present smile above his soul patch. He’d never seen the Asian Sacred Lotus before, though his customers had requested them throughout the years, and he wasn’t going home without a sample. Once he found a leader—a piece of plant capable of reproducing—that was diminutive enough to remove without attracting attention, McDonald got a small hacksaw blade from his car, took a trash bag from a worker, and waited for the crowd to dwindle. “I went down to the lake and made five quick cuts, put it in the bag, and walked away like nothing ever happened,” he says. As he was leaving, he said to his girlfriend at the time, “If they lose these lotus, I am going to make a lot of money on this.”

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The 13-acre lake in Echo Park began in the 1860s as a drinking water reservoir for the nearby farms and ranches. (That probably explains the 1880s-era wagon wheel excavated from the lake bed during the renovation.) By the time the lotuses were introduced, the area—nicknamed Red Hill because of all the Communists who’d moved in—was already becoming urbanized. It was a fertile time for the city and for its horticultural evolution, with plant enthusiasts keen on taking advantage of what had been advertised as a paradisiacal climate. Pasadena’s Busch Gardens laid roots first, at the turn of the century. Then, in 1928, came the Rose Garden at Exposition Park, along with the Huntington Library’s garden and Brentwood’s short-lived Mande-ville Canyon Botanical Garden. “There were a lot of horticulturists coming out west and settling here,” says Hayes. “In particular, there was Dr. Francesco Franceschi, who was experimenting with all kinds of new plants for Southern California.”

Hayes met McDonald decades ago when she owned an aquatic nursery in Santa Barbara. With long, pond-filled greenhouses, his own nursery stretches an acre and a half behind his modest stucco house in Reseda. When word that McDonald had some Asian Sacred Lotus reached Hayes, she was elated. “We all had one really short conversation about Randy snitching a piece from the lake,” she says of the project’s team. “So much time had gone by, and all of the lotuses were missing from the lake that we felt the statute of limitations had expired—let’s put it that way.”

“I am being rewarded for being a thief,” McDonald admitted soon after the renovation was completed, though he’s not exactly contrite. “There were no signs saying anything. It was put there as a freebie.” In his opinion he was a conservator self-appointed to guard the lotus should something ever happen. “[City officials] thanked me,” he says. “They thanked me for taking them.”

They also paid nearly $30,000 for the 378 containers of lotus tubers they purchased from McDonald, who’s retained stock to sell to other customers. Workers gently pushed the tubers out of the five-gallon containers and into the lake, which reopened in June 2013. But a few months later mysterious pink blobs appeared all around the lake. They turned out to be eggs from South American apple snails, an invasive species that probably hitched a ride on a plant container during the revamp. The mollusks can grow as large as a small Granny Smith, but the initial fears about their decimating the Asian Sacreds seem to have been unwarranted.

The plants are expected to be in full bloom when the festival rolls out on the weekend of July 12. Should anyone take inspiration from McDonald, be forewarned: The new location of the lotus bed is more difficult to reach from the lakeside.

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