Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Species Spotlight: American Lotus

What do alligator buttons, duck acorns, and rattlenuts have in common? These names, along with water chinquapin, yonkapin, and yockernut, are all common names of the American lotus, Nelumbo lutea. Each refers to the plant's round, dark brown, half-inch seeds. Even the plant's genus name glorifies the seeds: Nelumbo means "sacred bean." In many cultures the American lotus is sacred and a symbol of beauty.

In Illinois, the American lotus can be found growing along the muddy shores of ponds, quiet streams, or rivers--anywhere it can gain a foothold--from the water's edge to a depth of 8 feet. The quiet backwaters of the Mississippi River, Horseshoe Lake in Alexander County, and Mermet Lake in Massac County are excellent sites to view expanses of American lotus. As many as 8,500 blooms can occur per acre!

The plant propagates itself not only from seed but also from rhizomes and tubers. The rhizomes are stems that creep along the muddy bottom. Tubers are stout and banana- shaped and can reach 10 inches in length and over half a pound in weight.

Late in spring the rolled- up, red- brown leaves push out of the mud. The crinkled leaf slowly opens during the warm days and soon becomes a big leaf platter with a depression in the center where the stem joins from below. The leaves often attain a width of a foot or more. The surface of the leaf sheds water and after a rainstorm the remnant droplets remain in the leaf, like shiny globules of mercury. The leaves either float on the surface or are erect and extend 1- 2 feet above the water. By the first frost the leaves grow tattered and brown and slowly sink below the surface.

American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea).

In early summer, flower buds arise from the same rootstock as the leaves. The flower bud is large and egg- shaped, and encased in several layers of scales and sepals. In Illinois, the flowers begin to bloom in early July and continue throughout the summer. The large, pale yellow flowers rise on stalks higher than the tallest leaves. In the center of each flower is a flat- topped, sulfur- colored receptacle that resembles a salt shaker. This is the pistil, and clustered around it are dozens of yellow stamens.

The flowers open in the morning and, at first, reveal only the female parts. This leads to cross- pollination because the insects that earlier visited older flowers with exposed stamens now crawl over the pistils of the young flowers. Each flower closes at night and lasts only 2 days. After the petals drop off, the center of the flower continues to grow and eventually reaches a diameter of about 3 inches. In the flat top are about 20 holes, each containing a seed. The seedpods bend over and fall into the water where they will rot and release the seeds. In spring some of the seeds will begin to germinate, float to the surface, and be blown ashore. Here, at the water's edge, a rhizome begins growing and a new plant is established--the next generation of the sacred lotus.

Susan Post, Center for Economic Entomology

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