Hiking around a lake south of Columbia, my wife and I found that the circular leaves and pale yellow flowers of American lotus had taken over one of its shallow coves. This emergent aquatic wildflower, while resembling water lilies, belongs to a separate genus; it is native to North America and found in most States east of the Rockies and in California.
Favoring shallow ponds and lake margins, the American lotus spreads by seed or rhizomes and can rapidly take over an area of calm water. Thick tubers develop at the base of the plant and both the flower and the leaves form at the end of long, individual stalks. The large flowers (which appear from June to September in Missouri) are composed of twenty or more petals and have a large, central seed pod that resembles a shower head; while the showy, cream-colored flowers bloom for only two days, the seed head gradually matures, eventually releasing large seeds that are consumed by waterfowl and humans. The tender vegetation may also be cooked and eaten and the starchy tubers have long been consumed by Native Americans; beaver and muskrat are known to feed on the rhizomes and the vast "stands" of American lotus offer ideal habitat for a wide variety of aquatic invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals.
The seeds of American lotus, known as alligator corn in the Southeast, remain viable for at least 200 years. In areas where swamps were once drained for agriculture or development, flooding or habitat restoration may reawaken the long dormant plant; it is thus not surprising that ancient civilizations believed the lotus had mystical powers.