The American Lotus is nowhere to be seen in late winter. The Lake Erie bays and shallows where this magnificent plant will hold court in late summer are now seemingly barren of life –featureless mud flats covered by a steely gray veneer of water. A mid-March visitor to these former beds will encounter the ice shredded remains of last year’s stems and leaves lying on the muddy bottom and seemingly little else. Even now, at the lowest point in the lotus year, there are a few things worth noting under those silty debris laden sheets. There are “Lotus Jellyfish,” for instance.
It is a miracle that even after a winter’s worth of roiling waves, nor’easters, shearing ice floes, and solid ice packs there are some remnant lotus leaves remaining. These surviving structures represent the skeletal form of the leaf. Because the leaves were so large to begin with (2 feet wide and up to 6 feet tall), their spidery remnants are sizable as well. In hand the central support stalk is reduced to a hub on a wheel with the radiating veins dangling over the palm like so many tentacles on a jellyfish. The multiple air channels that run the length of portion of the plant are clearly visible on the remains of the central stalk (see here in a closer view).
Texturally these leaf remnants are very un-jellyfish like with tough fibrous sinews holding them together. Mentally, however, they look like jellyfish and thus the reason behind my own little secret name. If one is so inclined, and one is sure no one is looking, one can “swim” them through the air and sing “Under de sea, under de ocean…” to enhance the effect (this is what winter does to some northern people). Sure, some of you dignified folk out there might consider this odd, but wait until I catch you jumping up and down like an inebriated chimp when your basketball teams advances in the march madness brackets.
Speaking of chimps, which we really weren’t but for lack of a better segue I am going to seize the opportunity, how about those “Lotus Bananas” rolling around the muddy bed, eh? Again, I may be using a seemingly odd term here, but the name is an apt one to describe the occasional lotus tuber that pops to the surface. These things really do look like pale yellow bananas or, more properly, like those little plantains that you see next to the Ugli fruits at the grocer.
Unless you are an Asian chef or health food aficionado, there is a good chance you’ve never seen a lotus tuber. Even fewer get a chance to see an American Lotus tuber. Chinese lotus “root” has long been available as a food source and now can be purchased on-line through specialty vendors. The Asian species is nearly identical to our American plant save for the color of the blossom. The American Lotus tuber, although once enjoyed as a food resource by native tribes, does not have the market enjoyed by its eastern cousin. You also don’t see them because normally they are buried deep in the mud.
Lotus plants are perennial. They re-sprout every year from these solid starchy tubers. If you could completely strip away the muddy bottom of a lotus bed you’d see a network of these structures connected to each other like sausage links. Even though these plants produce seeds, they depend primarily upon tubers to get the job done. The seeds can lie dormant for centuries if need be so they are in no rush to sprout. Individual tubers can be up to 10 inches long and each has an “eye” from which the new sprouts and rootlets emerge.
Take a good look at this tuber I found. It had been severed by the action of the winter storms and was seeking a new place at the corner of the bed. This was only the second fresh tuber that I have found in close to two decades of looking. Like a banana, it was slightly squarish in cross section, but unlike a banana it was hard like a potato. You’ll see that the eye end has a stout pointed bud coming out along with a section of connecting stem. A patch of raised dimples just behind the eye is where the rootlets will eventually originate.
I am not about to slice this example open. There are plenty of oriental tubers out there to cut open and they can serve as proxy American lotus examples. The interior of a fresh cut tuber is colored like old ivory and is riddled with a series of parallel air channels. When sliced in cross section, the pieces look like Swiss Cheese. Wow, I’ve just compared an American Lotus tuber to a sausage, a banana, and a piece of European cheese without blinking an eye!
If you would like to handle one of these Swiss bananas, you can buy one of these things on eBay for $24.98 plus shipping (as long as no one else bids against you) but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a proper mud bed to put it in. Besides, I have a perfectly good example that I’d be willing to part with for say….$23.45 -if you are willing to sing the entire “Under de Ocean” song while holding a Lotus Jellyfish in one hand. On the other hand, recognizing that the lotus is a protected species in Michigan, I probably should put this one back “under de mud” and leave sleeping tubers lay.