The Egyptian Lotus of Selden Cove

In the summer of 1878, a beautiful sailing yacht nosed up Selden Creek on the lower Connecticut River in Lyme to anchor in the pretty marsh-fringed Selden Cove. The lower river already was something of a yachting hub, but no one had glimpsed this vessel before, and rumors began to swirl about its owners and their purpose on the river. Indeed, the yacht from New York was on a strange mission.

The Hartford Daily Courant revealed that the mysterious craft was owned by none other than Pierre Lorillard IV — heir to the Lorillard Tobacco Company fortune. The 45-year-old was an avid sportsman who helped make Newport a yachting center, and also a major figure in thoroughbred horse racing. But what was the sporting gentleman doing messing about on the Connecticut River?

It seems that among his many pursuits, Lorillard also had a keen interest in botany. His yacht, according to the Courant, was there to acquire specimens of a rare aquatic plant, native to the Nile regions, but by some fluke growing in the lower Connecticut River in the freshwater tidal lagoon of Selden Cove. The plant was Nymphaea caerulea, the Egyptian lotus flower, sacred emblem of Creation, whose likeness graced the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs. Somehow, the waterlily ended up in Selden Cove; that summer, a dozen boats were busy gathering blooms which fetched $2 apiece; Meanwhile, Lorillard was offering a whopping $10 each.

“Mr. Charles Holmes of Hadlyme left at this office, yesterday, several blossoms of the rare and beautiful Egyptian lotus,” the Courant stated, Aug. 13, 1878. “They were gathered in Selden’s Cove, an indentation of the Connecticut River not far from Long Island Sound, famous alike for its shad and its lotus flowers.”

The-Blue-Lotus

The story of the Egyptian lotus of Selden Cove may be the most enchanting the Connecticut River has to offer. It’s a tale right out of A Thousand and One Nights. As far back as the 1860s, the exotic plant was observed growing at the head of Selden Cove, attracting visitors from all over who came to witness its dazzling blooms. The Courant wrote: “The blossoms bear a general resemblance to the yellow pond lily but are much larger and of a delicate pale buff color, and their texture and general make-up are free from the coarseness of the little American limitations. They grow in about four feet of water, and are consequently mounted on long stems, while the leaves are like great elephant ears. How these lotus plants happened to take root and manage to flourish where they are is one of the great mysteries of Connecticut.”

The story most often told of their provenance is that a shipment of Egyptian rags travelling upriver to a paper mill was washed overboard. These rags contained lotus seeds which found their way to the cove, and “from this little beginning the rest came.” Some even claimed the rags had come from a 3,000-year-old Egyptian tomb.

But is any of it true?

An 1867 article in the Courant says emphatically no:  “William Edwards of Middletown writes the Scientific American in relation to the supposed lotus growing in that vicinity, that the flower referred to as the same family (Nymphaea) with the Egyptian lotus, is but a different species, and though a magnificent plant, is by no means so uncommon as has been stated. It is found in western states, where it is known as the “water chinquapin,” and in Delaware and Philadelphia.”

That the Selden Cove lotus was not the famed Egyptian variety was confirmed by Asa Gray, friend of Darwin, the most important botanist of the 19th century. Examining some specimens, he declared them to be of the more common American variety. As to how they ended up in Selden Cove, Gray surmised that the plant had been purposefully introduced by Native Americans as a food source. But we will never know for sure. In 1927, the last remaining lotus plants were washed away in a flood, and the dazzling flowers have never been seen since. Still, the memory of the fragrant blossoms lingers along the lower river.

5 thoughts on “The Egyptian Lotus of Selden Cove”

  1. I’ve boated Selden Creek. I’m not sure how you’d get a sailing yacht to the cove. Most draw several feet of water because of deep keels. It’s tough enough in a power boat sometimes and only possible because I can raise the engine.

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    1. Roy, Suggest you check out Cruising-Guide-New-England-Coast, pages on Selden Island, which says Selden Cove was a hiding place for American ships during the Revolutionary War, and even today has depth at the center of the creek as averaging 10 feet in most places, and 13 feet in others.

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  2. The cove was deeper 100 years ago, newspaper articles I consulted tell me, like Chester Creek, where ships used to sail right up below village. Whalebone much deeper as well in the past.

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