According to Greek mythology, Odysseus encountered the tribe known as the Lotus–Eaters during his return from Troy, when a north wind drove him and his men away from Cape Malea and onto an island. After the local inhabitants invited Odysseus’s crew to join them in eating the mysterious plant — known for its ability to induce a dreamy forgetfulness — those who partook became languorous and bereft of memory. Without being dragged back to the ship and chained to their rowing-benches, they never would have returned to their duties. The incident is included in Book IX of the Odyssey:
The Lotus-eaters did not plan death for my comrades, but gave them of the lotus to taste. And whosoever of them ate of the honey-sweet fruit of the lotus had no longer any wish to bring back word or to return, but there they were fain to abide among the Lotus-eaters, feeding on the lotus, and forgetful of their homeward way.
These men, therefore, I brought back perforce to the ships, weeping, and dragged them beneath the benches and bound them fast in the hollow ships; and I bade the rest of my trusty comrades to embark with speed on the swift ships, lest perchance anyone should eat of the lotus and forget his homeward way.
When I discovered the broad expanse of lotuses filling Elm Lake, I had no desire to eat one, but I was more than willing to admire them. Their color, their form, and their height — as much as three or four feet — made me eager to forget my homeward way and linger in their company.
One of the most striking characteristics of the plant is the central, cone-like receptacle that contains ten to twenty pistils embedded in pits.
After the flower’s blooming is complete, the receptacles flatten and turn brown as seeds develop. Eventually the receptacle bends downward, releasing its seeds into the water; mallards, Canadian geese, and northern shovelers feed on them, while humans enjoy the empty pods as delightful accents for flower arrangements.
Unlike the mythical Lotus-Eaters, humans consume the seeds, leaves, and starchy rhizomes of the plant for nutrition rather than forgetfulness. Cooked young leaves taste very much like spinach; older leaves are useful for wrapping food. Immature seeds can be eaten raw, while older seeds can be ground into flour. The roots are stuffed, roasted, or stir-fried, and even the stamens of the flower can be dried and used to make a fragrant tea.
English designer William Morris’s advice to “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” could apply doubly well to the lotuses in our lakes and ponds; the plants are both immensely useful and breathtakingly beautiful.