Steve Gilliland (Courtesy photo)

Today I drove through the wetlands of McPherson Valley to see if the water lilies are thriving, or if there is any water to support them. There was clearly enough water for a few of them to grow and thrive, because some of their large yellow flowers dotted what looked like a sea of ​​green grass.

I remember several years ago climbing over the dam of a pond to be greeted by what looked like something out of an exotic Chinese water park. I’ve always called them water lilies, but the public lands manager for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks who manages the entire McPherson Valley wetlands system told me its correct name is American lotus, and says it’s actually native to Kansas. .

It reminds me of Pepe Le Pew, the skunk from the cartoons of my generation. Pepe fancied himself a ladies’ man, and his famous line was “Ah, my little lotus.”

The year I first discovered them was a wet year, and they filled the shallows in the corners of the pond like a mat of huge green leaves dotted with bold, pale, off-white flowers the size of grain bowls. Most of the time these plants appear with their huge leaves floating on the water, but here where the water was shallow they actually rose above the surface of the water. Most of the leaves of these plants were about a foot wide, give or take, and the fully opened flowers were about six inches across. The leaves of ancient American lotus plants can reach 24 inches in diameter.

An interesting phenomenon is that the leaves of the American lotus never get wet; The water forms a drop on it and runs out.

Each flower has a bright yellow, round center that looks like a small double-layer cake. When the flower dies, this center swells into a three or four inch wide seed pod that resembles a hornet’s nest with several individual seed chambers each containing a single marble-sized seed. As it continues to dry, the seed pod droops toward the water and the seeds eventually spill out and are deposited at the bottom of the pond. Seeds can lie dormant in the mud for several years before germinating, which happens when the hard outer shell softens. The plants grow from tuberous roots called rhizomes that can grow up to 50 feet long and from which dozens of plants can grow.

American lotus plants will grow in standing water of any pond, lake or stream less than three feet deep.

Waterfowl and other wildlife will eat the seeds and tubers if they can get to them. Native Americans peeled the tubers and cooked them to eat as a vegetable, 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 mystical powers to American lotus plants. Poultices made from the root pulp were thought to relieve the pain of inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, and a mash made from the flowers and leaves was said to have antifungal properties. Although there is little sound research regarding the medicinal properties of the American lotus, its close cousin, the Indian lotus or sacred lotus which is native to Asia and Australia, has been used medicinally for generations. It is known to relieve asthma, inflammation, headaches and fatigue, and is said to promote good digestion.

When I first visited Kansas over 30 years ago, I either bought or was given an ornamental seed pod of some sort that was brown and hard with many round parts inside, each containing a hard, round seed of some kind. I was told they are called “Nut Lake”. This decorative piece is long gone, but at the time I remember no one really knew what it was.

Guess what – after writing this column I now know that it was an American lotus seed pod!

I never cease to be amazed at the wildlife and plants that thrive here in Kansas that common sense tells me should not be here in our prairie state at all. For example, beavers and lynx here in Kansas, really; And now the water lilies!!!

Someone said about the American lotus flower: “Whenever you doubt your self-worth, remember the lotus flower. Although it sinks in life under the mud, it does not allow the dirt that surrounds it to affect its growth or beauty.

Boy, hey, could we use a chunk of that today!

Continue exploring the Kansas outdoors!

Steve can be contacted via email at (email protected).

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