American Lotus spread across Elm Lake ~ Brazos Bend State Park
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.
Comments always are welcome.
Only two living species of the Lotus family, the Nelumbonaceae, are recognized today. The Sacred Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) is widespread in Asia; both Buddha and various Hindu deities often are depicted sitting on its pink or white flowers. Associated with purity and beauty because of the contrast between its flower and the muddy source of its life, this lotus is far more than a symbol: parts of the flower are used for offerings at shrines, as decoration, and in cooking.
The North American lotus, Nelumbo lutea, produces yellow flowers rather than pink or white, but it shares large, striking leaves with its Asian counterpart. As much as two to three feet in diameter, they lie flat upon the water, or rise several feet into the air.
In truth, the leaves interest me as much as the flower. As they fade away, they bend toward the water, assuming shapes as individual as the clouds floating above them. When I discovered this one, I couldn’t help but think of Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake, and the various Arthurian legends.
The Lady of the Lake
Not all lotus leaves are so poetic, but as a group they are interesting. While lacking the slits that allow water lily leaves to drain, lotus leaves are covered with nanostructures coated with a hydrophobic wax, allowing water droplets that fall onto them to bead up and roll off the leaf. As they roll, the droplets pick up bits of dirt and debris, making the leaves essentially self-cleaning.
Of course, water can collect even on lotus leaves: often in ways that evoke human associations. When I found this ‘smiley face’ floating in Brazos Bend’s Elm Lake, I wished I could introduce it to the Lady of the Lake. It might have cheered her up.
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Mexican water lily ~ Nymphaea mexicana
Texas is home to four native species of water lily. Nymphaea ampla, though common in Mexico and the Caribbean, is quite rare, while N. odorata, a white lily that floats on the water’s surface, and N. elegans, the so-called blue water lily, are relatively common.
Our fourth lily is uncommon enough that I’d never seen one until I discovered a pair blooming in a pond at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge. The Spanish name for Nymphaea mexicana — lampazo amarillo, or yellow water lily — brings to mind the well-known Texas city. According to the Texas State Historical Association:
The settlement was originally called Oneida but was by majority consent renamed Amarillo after the nearby lake and creek. These natural features had been named by New Mexican traders and pastores, probably for the yellow soil along the creek banks or the yellow wildflowers that were abundant during the spring and summer.
Charles F. Rudolph, editor of the Tascosa Pioneer, blamed the [Fort Worth and Denver City Railway] employees for ignoring the word’s Spanish pronunciation; in 1888 he prophetically stated, “Never again will it be Ah-mah-ree-yoh.” Most of the town’s first houses were painted yellow in commemoration of the name change.
Unfortunately, when the Texas Legislature designated an official state water lily in 2011, it chose a cross between Nymphaea mexicana and another cultivar known as Nymphaea ‘Pink Starlet’ rather than one of our natives. Nymphaea ‘Texas Dawn,’ created by Ken Landon in 1985, is a lovely flower, but like the designation of the crape myrtle as our official state shrub, its selection clearly was influenced by factors other than its inherent beauty.
No matter. Lampazo amarillo will be blooming by morning, and it’s that amarillo that’s on my mind.
Comments always are welcome.