American Lotus

American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea)
American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea)

Common Names and Latin name

American lotus, yellow lotus, yonkapin, water chinkapin, chinquapin, macoupin, and wagipîn.

Nelumbo lutea

Family

American lotus is in the Nelumbonaceae or lotus-lily Family.

There are only two plants in this family:  the American lotus (Nelumbo lutea) and the sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera).  The sacred lotus is native to Asia and its flowers are pink.  Unfortunately the Asian lotus has escaped cultivation and is found growing naturally in several Florida counties. 

Form

American lotus is an aquatic plant that grows in still, or slow moving, waterways. 

Its leaves can grow to a foot across and it spreads by rhizomes.  The leaves and flowers rise a foot or two above the water.

American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea)
American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea)

Leaves

The leaves are round and can grow to a foot in diameter.  The stem (petiole) is attached to the center of the leaf.  The margins are entire without any teeth or indents. Leaf veins are very prominent on the underside of the leaves.

American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea)
American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea)

Flowers

The flowers appear in spring, summer and fall.  They are pale yellow with brighter yellow centers. The flowers are highly fragrant.  They open in the morning and close during the heat of midday to open again the following day.  Flower stalks can be three feet or longer and the flower itself is about ten inches across.

American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea)
American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea)

Seeds

The seeds can be found seated in a receptacle that has small openings for the tip of the seed to be exposed.  Lotus seed heads resemble a shower head nozzle.  

The seeds have an extremely hard outer coating when they are brown and fully ripened.

American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea) seed pods
American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea)

Habitat

American lotus grows in ponds, lakes and drainage ditches that stay continuously wet.  It doesn’t grow well where the water is always moving or there is a strong current.  They are found growing in sluggish lakes, ponds, streams, and ditches throughout much of the United States. 

American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea)
American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea)

Native Range

American lotus is native to the following states: AL, AR, CT, DE, FL, GA, IA, IL, IN, KS, KY, LA, MA, MD, ME, MI, MN, MO, MS, NC, NE, NJ, NY, OH, OK, PA, SC, TN, TX, VA, and WI.

Landscape Use

Large whiskey barrel planters can be used to grow this aquatic plant if you don’t have access to a pond in your green space.  They generally do not grow in streams, or areas of moving water, and prefer still waters without a lot of disturbance. 

Be aware that lotus is an aggressive grower and can quickly fill a small pond.  Of course some people are thrilled to have this wonderful resource and then again some people consider them weeds.  I personally love them and advocate growing them because they provide for the wildlife as well as an edible aspect to the landscape.

American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea)
American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea)

Human Uses

The roots, leaves, and seeds can be eaten when cooked.  I have read some people eat young roots raw, but I don’t have experience with that so I would suggest cooking before consuming.

The immature (green) seeds can be used in different ways.  Some Asian recipes call for peeling raw, green, seeds and grinding them into a paste.  Some recipes call for them to remain peeled but whole.  My favorite, and the easiest, preparation is to simply boil for about twenty minutes in lightly salted water and eat like boiled peanuts. 

The leaves can be used as a food wrapper to cook foods in much like the way banana leaves are used for cooking fish or shrimp.  Here’s a recipe from Kit & Ben Knotts for Lotus Leaf Wrapped Fish.  

The root can be used as a fresh vegetable or processed to create a starchy flour.  It is only eaten when cooked.  It is best peeled, sliced, and soaked before use.  Check out Makiko Itoh’s page on How to Cook Lotus Root.

For American Indians our native lotus was an essential food source because most of the plant can be eaten at various stages and it is found growing throughout the state.

It is best to avoid eating it too often as the plants are said to hold onto heavy metals from its environment.  It is also wise to consider if herbicides or pesticides have been used in the immediate area before consuming.

Wildlife Uses

American lotus provides excellent cover for lake wildlife. The submerged stems provide a network of cover for juvenile fish and the invertebrates they eat. The beautiful floating leaves provide a canopy for larger fish to use as a hunting grounds. The flowers, and seed receptacles, provide small hiding spots for frogs and insects. In north Florida beaver and muskrats eat the seeds, roots and shoots.

American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea)
American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea)

Propagation

Can be grown easily from seed or transplanting a tuber.

The seeds need to be soaked in water for several days until green sprouts are seen. 

American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea) newly sprouted seeds
American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea) seed sprouts on day 5
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