Spring, Submerged

Broadleaf Arrowhead transformed by sunlight and water

I once heard a visitor refer to coastal Texas — somewhat humorously — as “The Land of Ugly Waters.” On the upper coast, our rivers flow muddy and dark, staining our bays and giving us dull, brown beaches. Even the Gulf of Mexico is affected by the rivers’ silt. When fishermen begin reporting that clear, blue water has moved within a few miles of the shore, high excitement ensues.

Even our freshwater ponds tend toward murkiness during most of the year. But in winter, as cold temperatures and less light slow plant growth, the surface clears, and visibility increases.

Last weekend, the waters at a freshwater pond in the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge were so clear it was possible to see the bottom, where the plant commonly known as Broadleaf Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia) had begun its underwater growth.

Named for its arrowhead-like leaves, the plant can be found submerged in shallow water or on wet muddy banks along sloughs, swamps, marshes, and ponds throughout North America.  Each plant produces leaves and flowers on separate stalks. Above the water’s surface, its leaves tend to broaden, while submerged leaves tend to be more narrow. Their three-petaled white flowers are easily distinguished; male flowers have bushy yellow centers, while the centers of female flowers are smooth and green.

The plant also is known as Duck Potato because of edible tubers that form at the ends of its rhizomes. Enjoyed by waterfowl and other animals such as muskrats, they also can be boiled or baked and eaten like potatoes by humans. An important food source for Native Americans, they sometimes were known as Wapato.

Accustomed to seeing the plants’ rich green foliage and delicate flowers, it was a delight to catch a glimpse of their secret underwater life.

 In time, light and warmth will obscure the pond’s bottom as algae blooms and plants such as duckweed begin to increase on the water’s surface. But by then, both leaves and flowers will be full and tall, providing a new way to enjoy the plant.

Female Sagittaria latifolia flowers


Comments always are welcome.

50 thoughts on “Spring, Submerged

  1. Isn’t it wonderful how Nature never stops! We enjoy the beautiful Broadleaf Arrowhead most of the year in our wetlands and ponds. The blooms attract all sorts of pollinators. Yet, we never think about it once it disappears from the landscape.

    “Out of sight, out of mind.”

    Under water, the plant renews and begins growing toward the light and soon the swaying green and white waves will welcome spring visitors once again.

    Thank you for reminding us to seek life in unexpected places.

    1. Most of the time, the visibility around Galveston Bay means only the jellies and crabs that skim the surface get seen, and as for the bayous? Clearly, the birds are nabbing their frogs, fish, and crawfish by more than sight alone. But when the water clears, it’s a wonder. It was the sunlight that did the trick here, and it was a great reminder to always — always! — be sure to look straight down as well as out.

      In the hill country, of course, limestone river and creek beds mean the water clarity and color are much different, and prettier in their way. But if those rivers are diamonds, this surely qualifies as smokey topaz.

    1. In really shallow water, I’ve often seen crawfish crawling around, and I’ve sometimes seen minnows, but I can’t remember ever being able to see all the way through the water column to the spot where the plants are emerging. There is a constructed pond at Brazoria where you can see the plants in their pots beneath the surface, but of course that doesn’t have a natural mud bottom.

  2. Love the water shots! I always get grouchy when people say our water is “dirty”—ok, so there is definitely some pollution but there’s also pollution in the blue, clear waters off Florida!

    1. A lot of people confuse our river runoff with ‘dirty’ water. With the Sabine/Neches, Trinity/San Jacinto, Brazos, San Bernard, and Colorado emptying so close to one another, it’s no wonder there’s some mud off the coast. There are some great NOAA and NASA views, like this one, , taken after Harvey.

  3. That golden-colored arrowhead is really striking, excellent photo.
    I’m wondering if Lewis & Clark et al were eating duck potatoes at one point. I remember reading that when they’d crossed the Rockies, having survived almost exclusively on elk meat for quite a while (so they took turns frying up a beaver tail when they could get it, as a big treat), they traded with the locals for food, and were given some sort of tubers. After an all-protein diet, the tubers didn’t agree with them, the whole party was sick. Too bad, they’re supposed to be pretty tasty.
    I was just reading, that those arrowroot biscuits, they give to babies, and the powder for thickening gravy, etc. is actually from “Maranta arundinacea” and some other tropical plants.

    1. Lewis and Clark were indeed eating Wapato. There’s a good bit of information about it here. Apparently eating the tubers raw isn’t recommended, as they have a bitter taste, but baking, boiling, and so on make them palatable. The article adds:

      “Fresh wapato might be roasted in a fire’s embers, the way the expedition first tasted it on November 4, when its appearance reminded Clark of “a small Irish potato.” For preservation, native people pounded the dried roots and compressed the meal into cakes that Lewis said served well as bread. Throughout the Fort Clatsop winter, wapato was a frequent feature of the Corps’ diet, obtained by trading with local people, and a welcome addition to meals of “pore elk” when they boiled meat and roots together.”

      Your mention of beaver tail reminds me of a classic case from the annals of epidemiology. Changes in food preparation techniques in Alaska led to increasing numbers of people dying from botulism, and fermented beaver tail often was the cause. In New Stuyahok, in March of 1975, signs of acute botulism poisoning developed in three women after they ate fermented beaver tail. Two of the women died of respiratory failure within 24 hours after the symptoms began; one had wrapped fresh beaver tails in a plastic bag and placed them near a warm stove for more than two weeks. Whoops! Still, “she died of beaver tail botulism” has quite a ring to it.

      1. I’ve had elk jerky, which is really good, people sell it along the road in northern Utah, and I think an elk sandwich at a Cabela’s, but never stew. I think maybe I’ll just pass on the next fermented beaver tail stand I see. In Canada, they make a kind of fried dough with cinnamon on it, that’s pretty good, that they call beaver tails, but I like the “funnel cake” kind of fried dough they make in Pennsylvania, sometimes NY, it’s not exactly health food, but once or twice a year at a county fair or whatever, it’s a great treat. OK definitely time for dinner!

        1. Ohhhh… Funnel cake! That’s a standard at arts and crafts fairs, Renaissance Faires, and some music concerts here. You’re right that they’re not health food for the body, but they sure are good for the soul!

          Speaking of elk, I know a Kansas woman who hunts one elk a year for food, and makes her dog an annual birthday cake of elk meat — frosted with mashed potatoes.

  4. It is very interesting to see this part of the cycle of the plant. Nature is a continuum and even though we may often not see, or may fail to notice, all the activity going on around us, it happens nonetheless and is a joy to discover when we do.

    1. It’s easy to love a flower, and there can be great aesthetic appeal in a seedhead, but to see a flower developing and rising up from the mud was something special. I suppose people who maintain water gardens or ponds have that experience quite often, but it was delightful to find everything ‘just right’ for an opportunity to see below the surface, including the slant of sunlight.

  5. Those underwater pictures would make good “sofa art” — they have a nice brown and golden yellow palette, are recognizably representative yet pleasantly abstract in design. The plants would also be nice to add to a backyard koi pond, or to some of our playa lakes.

    1. I suspect plenty of people have added this plant to water gardens or residential ponds; it’s on the list of recommended pond plants at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. It’s native in only two counties in the far northeastern part of the Panhandle, but it’s possible it could thrive in a pond there with some nurturing. That said, I just looked at your forecast; it would take a whole lot of nurturing to get it through that — like digging it up and bringing it into the house!

      The gold and brown tones call to mind the late ’50s and ’60s, and the gold/yellow leaf made me think of the brooches that were common then: leaves and such in a variety of styles. Even Avon got into the act, as I recall.

  6. Your two pictures of yellow arrowhead leaves underwater convey a sense of mystery thanks to the mostly dark and indistinct shapes in the background. Also mysterious is the word wapato. According to Merriam-Webster, it’s from “Chinook jargon wapatoo, from Cree wāpatowa, meaning ‘white mushroom.'” Presumably the tubers resemble some kind of white mushroom the Cree were familiar with.

    1. I like the darkness of the background; the effect of the ripples on the surface also reminded me of the ‘square waters’ that sometimes appear when there are cross-currents. In the realm of everything-is-connected, your mention of ‘Chinook’ brought to mind Chinook winds.

      I found this especially intriguing:

      “Wapato once grew in abundance and it was eaten by many indigenous groups throughout Washington and Oregon. The tubers were widely traded from harvesting centers to neighboring areas. Often, along the middle and lower Columbia, families would own large patches of wapato, camping beside their harvesting sites for a month or more…

      “Sauvie Island, in Multnomah County, Oregon across the Columbia River from the Confluence Land Bridge, was named “Wappetoe Island” by Lewis and Clark. On March 29, 1806, Clark recorded how the women harvested wapato ‘by getting into the water, Sometimes to their necks, holding by a Small canoe and with their feet loosen the wappato or bulb of the root from the bottom from the Fibers, and it imedeately rises to the top of the water, they Collect & throw them into the Canoe, those deep roots are the largest and best roots.”

      Maybe I should spend a little time barefoot in the ditches foraging for wapato, although today there are cautions about gathering them only from unsullied water, since they clean the water of heavy metals and other pollutants. (Perhaps the plants themselves contributed to the clarity of the pond water.)

  7. Never having visited the Texas shore, I didn’t know about the state’s reputation for “dirty” rivers. Your photo of the luminous arrowhead leaves before the earth-colored, patterned background is gorgeous and I would have never surmised that they were submerged in water.

    1. It’s usually the tourists who call the rivers and beaches ‘dirty’ — especially spring breakers who come to Galveston thinking it’s going to look like the photos they’ve seen of Padre Island — or Florida! — with white sand and palm trees. Conditions along our coast vary widely, and the rivers farther south aren’t so muddy. Go farther east, into Louisiana, and it won’t be long until you’re at the Mississippi: the ‘Big Muddy.’

      I wasn’t sure how the photos would turn out, never having tried underwater photography from above. But, the shafts of bright sunlight were just bright enough to make the leaves shine.

      1. Those shafts of light give a beautiful effect in the way that they pick out both the golden arrowheads and the textures of the pond bottom and water. This is a plant that’s a possibility for the pond I’ve been building, so very interesting for me.

        1. What’s fun is that the leaves actually were green. The gold and yellow is all sunlight. I’m not sure exactly how it works, but it is beautiful. If you do think about this for your pond, remember that male and female are on different plants. You may need both for them to bloom; I’m not sure how it works with this plant.

    1. That’s the sort of phrase that pops up when tourists and spring breakers arrive, thinking they’re coming to Florida. We have great fishing, great food, and great people — but beautiful water is unpredictable as can be.

    1. We have so many things that incorporate the Latin Sagitta, or ‘arrow’! There’s the Sagittarius you mentioned (a constellation known as The Archer), a constellation named Sagitta (the ‘Arrow’), and this plant: Sagittaria. Here’s a photo of their mature leaves: the arrow-like shape is more obvious when they grow up!

  8. It’s hard to imagine these yellow leaves, so bright in that crystal clear water, will ever produce that lovely pinkish white flower! Don’t you love taking water photos when it is so clear? It’s like a magical, somewhat secret world that reveals itself.

    1. Clear water’s such a rarity here, I’ve never tried to capture plants like this before. I’ve captured critters in the water, like snakes and alligators, but even then they’re not really ‘under’ the water. Is your lake clear? I’ve tried to remember the Minnesota lakes where we used to spend vacations, but all I remember are the leeches and my dad getting excited over his Walleyes!

    1. We Texans know better. That’s the name occasionally offered by tourists and spring breakers who thought they were going to end up in a place like Florida, with white sands, great surfing, and palm trees! A few hundred miles down our coast, there aren’t as many rivers spilling mud into the Gulf, and things look much different.

  9. Hm. I guess I never thought about Texas having “ugly water” along its coast, but yes, I do remember that. Of course, it’s totally unfair to compare Texas beaches with those along the Gulf in Mississippi and Florida, isn’t it? I’d never seen this arrowhead before either, and you’ve showcased it nicely. I like looking at the entire plant through the rippling water!

    1. I certainly remember my first glimpse of the Gulf of Mexico, in Galveston. It was quite a sight for this midwestern girl, but it definitely didn’t match my mental image of ‘ocean and beach.’ Over time, I came to appreciate it for what it is, and enjoy days spent there, but there have been plenty of visitors who only have a few days there, and go away with their negative first impression intact. It’s too bad, but so it goes.

      The arrowhead is quite common here, and the flowers are lovely. Native American women would harvest the tubers by using their feet; I think it might have been fun as well as hard work to squish around in the mud — rather like stomping grapes.

  10. I like the abstract look of this when it’s below the surface and with just the right light. Very fascinating. It reminds me a little of this past weekend when my father found a small stretch of rapids in a local creek where the light was just right to create some incredible patterns and reflections. No plantlife in our case, but still fun to see. Thanks for sharing!

    1. It was one of those serendipitous moments. I’d just looked over the edge of a boardwalk railing to see what might still be floating on the surface, and there they were: sunlit and visible. The effect couldn’t have lasted any more than three or four minutes before the light changed and the ‘glitter’ disappeared.
      There are times when ‘shoot first, figure out later’ is the best rule!

    1. That’s what I thought, too. The combination of the light penetrating the water and the surface ripples creating patterns is just wonderful. If there had been less light or more ripples, the effect would have been diminished, if not ruined.

      1. We have quite a bit of murky water here in the Lowcountry. The water at the beaches because there’s marshes nearby, which muddies things up. The freshwater rivers in the eastern part of the state can be murky as well. One of our local rivers, the Edisto, is considered a black river because of all the tannin. It’s a favorite for inner tubing, as whole sections are fairly shallow, except when there’s high water. It flows through Edisto Gardens in Orangeburg, SC and we’d often go swimming in it, when visiting family. That section was shaded and cold as the dickens, even in midsummer.

        1. We’ve got a couple of those great tubing rivers, too. One is the Rio Frio, and it lives up to its name. In the middle of summer, those cold waters are a big draw, as is the Guadalupe. If you don’t like crowds, they’re not the place to be in August, but the Frio in Fall is glorious, thanks to the beautiful cypress trees lining its banks.

          Your mention of black water reminded me of the Doobie Brothers’ song, although that was a tribute to the Mississippi. Our most beautiful rivers and creeks are in the hill country, where the limestone beds can create almost-tropical blues and greens, and the water’s crystal clear: or can be at certain times of the year.

    1. It took me a while, but I finally realized the leaves seem metallic to me: like very thinly rolled copper. I don’t know how deep the water was, but it surely was at least three feet, since there were other plants underwater that gave a better sense of its depth. They were reflecting light, too, but the images were so cluttered and messy, I decided to focus on these.

    1. I thought the plant looked almost like a sculpture made of rolled metal. It was quite an effect, that’s for sure! Even when seen under normal conditions, the arrow shaped leaves and the flowers are delightful.

    1. I couldn’t quite decide which of the sword plants I found is yours, but I did find an Amazon sword plant with pretty white flowers that look similar. There’s another aquatic plant I found at San Bernard that has white flowers, but I haven’t identified it yet. It was growing over by Columbia Lakes with lotus last summer, so it must be a native.

      I had no idea that red-eared sliders would live so long!

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