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If you see the American lotus in bloom, with petals spread wide to the sun, you might also be seeing a gift from the past.
Each pale yellow flower hovers above Chesapeake waters for just a few days each summer, but the seed from which it grew may have been dropped centuries ago.
"Lotus seeds lie dormant for a very long time," said Doug Rowley of the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington, DC. "There are accounts of seeds in a dried-out lake bed in India that were 800 or 900 hundred years old, and the seeds were still viable."
Here in the Chesapeake, this year's blooms may spring from a seed head that nodded over the water as American Indians paddled by.
Most established lotus plants spread by tube-like roots called rhizomes. But seeds are nature's back-up plan for this shoreline plant that is both a lovely sight and a biological wonder.
With one of the largest flowers in North America, American lotus can form spectacular "fields" in protected shoreline areas. Paddlers are often thrilled to work their way among them in July and August, when blooms are at their peak.
They grow in shallow water, often taking root in 6–12 inches of water and then moving out to depths of 5 or 6 feet.
Large round leaves grow on the surface, reaching the size of a pizza pan. They look a bit like lily pads, but the lily pad leaf has a slit, while the lotus leaf is a large, unbroken circle with a stem at the center.
In July, flowers emerge with layers of pale yellow petals. As the plant grows and blooms, it pushes upward so that leaves and flowers can both hover up to 4 feet above the water.
The flowers breach the surface in a curled blossom.
"It's like popcorn," Fowley said. "You get a few here and there, then everything in bloom, then the rest here and there. Sometimes you get a second flush and see blooms into September."
For several days, they open in the sun and close at dusk. Some reach 10 inches across and sport more than 20 petals.
The stem in the center of the leaf draws oxygen into the plant. The stem is hollow. "It takes the air in right to the rhizomes, like a straw," Fowley said. "If you were to snip the tube below the water, you'd see bubbles of air coming up."
Lotus leaves have a unique coating that causes water to collect in droplets on the surface. Because the leaves are turned up, the droplets pool in the center until their weight tips the plant and spills off the accumulated water.
The seed head forms from the center of the flower. Many botanists compare it to a shower head, with round recesses that each hold a hefty, hard-shelled seed. Most parts of the American lotus are edible, and the seeds are no exception. In Louisiana, they call them "Cajun peanuts," and they are plucked and eaten before the shell turns hard.
American Indians in the Chesapeake region likely made great use of the lotus plant, but the tradition was lost as European colonies took hold.
Today, lotus seeds may best serve as a bank for tomorrow's plants. Natural stands of the American lotus have become hard to find around the Bay and its rivers, but those that remain are well worth a look.
Looking for Lotus?
Here are some places to see the American lotus in the Chesapeake region.
This article was originally published on the Bay Journal website on July 14, 2013.