Ah, My Little Lotus Flower!

Steve Gilliland
Special to the Globe

I remember the Skunk in the cartoons from years ago named PePe Le Pew. PePe fancied himself a bit of a Don Juan and was always trying to woo other female animal characters with his charm. His most famous pick-up line began with the words, “Ah my little lotus flower.”

When driving through the McPherson Valley Wetlands lately I’ve noticed amazing yellow flowers in some of the many ponds. This morning I donned my waders and got a firsthand look at what I was seeing. I crossed the surrounding drainage ditch and clamored up the tall dike on the back side.

What greeted me was like something from an exotic Chinese water garden. I’ve always called them water lilies, but Jason Black, Public Lands Manager for the Kansas Dept of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism who manages the entire McPherson Valley Wetlands system tells me their proper name is American Lotus, and says they are in fact native to Kansas. They filled the shallow waters in the corners of the pond like a mat of immense green leaves dotted with bold, pale, yellowish-white flowers the size of cereal bowls.

Most of the time these plants are shown with their enormous leaves floating on the water, but here where the water was shallow they actually rise above the water’s surface.

Most of the leaves on these plants were about a foot wide, give or take, and the flowers that were fully opened measured six-inches across. Leaves on older American Lotus plants can reach 24-inches in diameter.

An interesting phenomenon is that American Lotus leaves never get wet; water forms a droplet on them and just runs off.

Each flower has a bright, yellow, round center resembling a little double-layer cake. When the flower dies, that center swells into a seed pod three or four inches wide resembling a wasp nest with several individual seed compartments that each contain a single marble-sized seed.

As it further dries the seed pod droops toward the water and the seeds eventually spill out and lay on the bottom of the pond. The seeds can lay dormant in the mud for several years before germinating, which occurs when the hard outer shell softens. The plants grow from tuberous roots called rhizomes which can become up to 50 feet long beneath the ground and can have dozens of plants growing from them.

American Lotus plants will grow in the still water of any pond, lake or stream that is shallower than three-feet.

Waterfowl and other wildlife will eat the seeds and tubers if they can get to them. Native Americans peeled and cooked the tubers to eat as vegetables or dried and stored them for winter food.

They ate the seeds in soups and other dishes or roasted them like chestnuts. Many Great Plains tribes attributed mystic powers to the American Lotus plants.

A poultice made from the pulp of the root was thought to relieve the pain of inflammatory ailments such as arthritis, and a mash made from the blossoms and leaves was said to have anti-fungal properties. Although little sound research exists concerning the medicinal properties of the American Lotus, a close cousin, the Indian or Sacred Lotus which is native to Asia and Australia has been used medicinally for generations. It is known to relieve asthma, inflammation, headache and fatigue, and is said to promote good digestion.

When I first visited Kansas over 30 years ago, I was given a decorative seed pod of some sort that was brown and hard with numerous round compartments in it, each containing a round hard seed of some sort. I was told they were called “lake nuts.”

That decorative object has long since disappeared, but at the time I remember no one seemed to know what the heck it really was. Guess what; after writing this column I now know it was an American Lotus seed pod!

I never cease to be amazed at the wildlife and plants which flourish here in Kansas that common sense tells me shouldn’t be here in our prairie state at all.

For instance, beavers, bobcats and porcupines here in Kansas in the middle of the prairie, really; and now waterlillies!

Of the American Lotus someone has said, “Whenever you doubt your self-worth, remember the lotus flower. Even though it plunges to life beneath the mud, it does not allow the dirt that surrounds it to affect its growth or beauty.”

Continue to Explore Kansas Outdoors!

Steve can be contacted by email at stevenrgilliland@gmail.com