Life Among the Lotuses

A familiar sight at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, the Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata) is popularly known as the Moorhen. Thanks to its red bill and shield, it’s an easy bird to spot, and it clearly finds the lotuses at Brazos Bend State Park as congenial as the reed-covered banks of Brazoria ponds.

Wading in lotus-leaf ponds seems equally appealing to Purple Gallinules (Porphyrio martinica). The chicks can walk quite soon after hatching, but depend on their parents for food during the first few weeks of life.

While they aren’t as colorful as adult Purple Gallinules, hints of the color-to-come are obvious, and their seemingly oversized feet allow them to range easily and quickly through the vegetation.

Adult Purple Gallinules have quite a limited range in the United States, but their vibrant colors make them welcome residents wherever they appear.

Gallinules aren’t the only species that appreciate the advantages of a nice lotus pad. Green herons (Butorides virescens), one of our smallest herons, will secret themselves among the leaves while fishing. Stealth isn’t their only weapon, however. The Cornell birding site notes that:

The Green Heron is one of the world’s few tool-using bird species. It often creates fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, and feathers, dropping them on the surface of the water to entice small fish.

Perhaps because of its tool-using abilities, it’s equally willing to wait in the open for its next meal. Green herons are quite common even in our marinas, where they perch and wait just above the water on dock lines.

While the thick covering of duckweed might seem to be an obstacle to waterbirds in search of a meal, this Great Egret (Ardea alba) plucked two  fish from the water while I watched. In addition to fish, they’ll willingly consume frogs, snakes, birds, small mammals, and invertebrates such as crawfish.

This Yellow-crowned Night Heron was especially well-hidden at the edge of Elm Lake: the yellow feathers atop its head an almost perfect match for the flowers of the rattlebush (Sesbania drummondii).

Like the Green Heron, the Yellow-crowned is accepting of human company; I often see them fishing in the median of South Shore Boulevard, one of the most heavily traveled thoroughfares in my neighborhood.

Soon enough, the lotuses will decline and winter birds will join these year-round residents. It’s another reason to welcome the turning of the seasons, and a reason to return to Brazos Bend.

Comments always are welcome.

The Lotus Admirer

American Lotus spread across Elm Lake ~ Brazos Bend State Park

According to Greek mythology, Odysseus encountered the tribe known as the LotusEaters 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.

Comments always are welcome.