In my neck of the woods, or rather, on my bend of the river, it was a bad year for lotus. Or a good year for lotus. It depends who you are. Boaters and fisherman would say it was a bad year; however, nature photographers and lotus plants themselves rejoiced. Acres of lotus lined the shores and bays of the Fox River just before it empties into Lake Butte des Morts. Long time locals said they’d never seen so much lotus. It was impossible to fish from our dock and our small boat barely squeezed through the lotus-lined channel to the river.
I was surprised by how many visitors to our home this year had never seen lotus before. Or maybe they’d never paid attention because it wasn’t as prominent in the riverscape as it was this year. If you’ve spent any time on a slow-moving river, bay, slough or pond, you’ve probably seen lotus.
Some other names for lotus are Duck Acorns, Water Chinkapin, Yonkapin, Yockernut, Pondnut, Swamp Rattles, Watering Can, Monocanut, Alligator Buttons and Rattle Nut. Many of the names refer to the large shower head-shaped seedheads that when dried, hold acorn-sized nuts that rattle when shaken. By the way, those nuts may be viable for up to 1,200 years!
People tend to confuse lotus with water lilies. Here’s the main difference: water lily leaves have a slit or slice while lotus leaves are an unbroken solid circle.
You really don’t need anything else for positive ID, but here are a few more identifying characteristics. The stems, rhizomes (roots) and tubers (more about these later) all have air chambers running their entire length. When they are sliced, they resemble wagon wheels. Cut or broken stems ooze latex, much like milkweed.
Lotus leaves have stems attached to their undersides in the exact middle. Every lotus leaf has one straight vein that runs from its center to its edge. All the other veins curve and branch. Leaves may lie flat on the water or be held up to six feet in the air. Leaves are big – up to two feet across.
Lotus flowers are a creamy yellow and have a light sweet scent. Flowers are held on separate single stems just a bit higher than the leaves. They are the largest flower native to the United States. Each flower lasts only two days before the petals fall off and the center begins to enlarge to form the seedhead.
Lotus colonies can cover just a small area or up to thousands of acres. One acre of lotus can have 45 miles of rhizomes, 75,000 leaves and 8,000 flowers.
The adaptability of lotus accounts for its success. Give it a sunny spot and it can grow in a mudflat or in up to ten feet of water. Its versatility allows it to out compete other plants and form a monoculture. It’s not a strict monoculture, like a cornfield is though, because lotus colonies are teeming with animal life. The pads are habitat for fish, insects, amphibians, mollusks, birds, reptiles and aquatic mammals. The nuts feed muskrats and waterfowl – thus the “Duck Acorn” name. The “Alligator Button” name suggests that the nuts are probably a snack for alligators down south where they have such scary things.
Every part of the lotus plant is edible, although some parts are more palatable than others. The newly emerged leaves are rolled up like a scroll and that’s the time to harvest them. The tender leaves can be boiled in several changes of water and eaten as a green, but most people don’t like them that way. So if you’re starving do that, otherwise use the young leaves as wraps for rice, meat or fish.
The long stamens of the flower and its petals can be harvested on the first day the flower is open and dried to make a light aromatic tea.
The tastiest part of the lotus plant is its tuber, a banana-shaped structure at the end of the rhizome. It is also the most challenging part of the plant to harvest. Warning: When you harvest lotus tubers you are going to get wet and muddy. To find the tuber, stand in the water next to a lotus leaf or flower stem. Follow down the stem with your hand to the river bottom. There will be rhizomes going off in two directions. You want to take the direction that the bottom of the stem angles toward. Use your hand to follow the rhizome along the river bottom. When the rhizome takes a sudden downward turn into the muck (or sand if you are lucky) you are almost there. Eventually you’ll feel a widening in the rhizome; that is the tuber. Pull backward rather than upward on the tuber to break it from the rhizome. You may find two or three tubers in a row. Try not to break the tuber itself because muddy water could get inside the aforementioned airways. You can always rinse it out, but that’s just an extra step you could save by being careful in harvesting.
Now that you’ve got the tubers, rinse them well, peel with a vegetable peeler and slice them. They are like apples and pears when exposed to air and brown quickly. To avoid this, drop them into water with lemon juice, citric acid or vinegar. Young tubers will have a crisp texture and sweet taste. They can be eaten raw, fried as chips, roasted, baked, or stir-fried. They can also be roasted whole in the campfire.
Undamaged tubers can be kept in the refrigerator up to six weeks if kept from drying out, or two weeks if damaged or cut. To preserve them for future use, they can be canned, or parboiled and frozen or dehydrated to be used later in soups or stews. Here’s an interesting tidbit: Immature tubers turn blue when boiled while mature ones turn pink.
Lotus nuts can be harvested while still green, broken out of the seedhead, boiled 20 minutes and eaten like peas. Pop them out of their still tender shells and salt them. There is a small bitter embryo in the middle of each nut that some people prefer not to eat. It is easily removed.
When the nuts mature further, they turn brown and very hard. Smash them with a hammer and pick out the nutmeats. Good nuts are a light creamy color. Brown or powdery nutmeats are spoiled. Ground to a coarse meal and boiled, lotus nuts make a good hot cereal. Ground more finely into flour, they can be used in breads, tortillas, pancakes and muffins. Substitute all or part of the flour called for in the recipe with lotus nut flour.
I haven’t yet personally had the pleasure of eating any part of the lotus plant. Research tells me that harvesting and consuming lotus is a lesson in “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” If whatever part you are eating is tough, you probably harvested it too late. If it’s bitter, try boiling it in one or two changes of water. If you can’t find tubers at the end of the rhizomes, you may be harvesting too early. Wait a couple weeks and get muddy again.
CAUTION: Lotus tubers may harbor parasites that commonly infest aquatic plants. Symptoms of infestation may include stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and intestinal obstruction. Make sure to wash any aquatic edible plant thoroughly.
2 lbs. lotus root, trimmed and peeled
2 T. sesame oil
1 ½ T. sugar
1 c. sake or pale dry sherry
2 T. soy sauce
1 t. toasted sesame seeds
One small hot pepper
Optional: two scallions
Cut the lotus crosswise into quarter-inch slices. Rinse until water runs clear. Dry. Heat sesame oil. Add lotus roots and toss for a minute. Add the rest of the ingredients. Stir continuously for about 10 minutes.